Guest Post: Boffer Lessons for Theater

I’m very excited to share this guest post on my blog- it’s on a topic I find both fascinating and important for theater LARPing, and written by Brian R., whose LARPs rank among my all-time favorite theater LARPs.

What Intercon-Style Theater LARPs can Learn from Boffer Rulesets

I was recently at NELCO, the New England LARP Conference, where a couple things got me thinking about mechanics in theater style LARPs, and how we can do them better. The first was the outpouring of negative sentiment towards using mechanics at all in a LARP from a number of the panelists and audience members. The problem people had with mechanics always ran along the same lines: that they were slow, anti-immersive and broke people out of the character. Many people mentioned how their favorite moments in LARPing were all intense roleplay, devoid of mechanics. My experience has been different; many of my favorite moments have been intense roleplay made possible by mechanics. On further reflection, however, all the ones that followed this pattern were from boffer LARPs specifically. But they weren’t moments of combat- they were cool roleplay moments, moments that couldn’t have existed without some level of mechanics.

The second was a presentation I attended, given by Kevin Riggle (who runs Northeast LARP News) about avoiding “combat bubbles”. “Combat bubble” is a term in the local theater LARP community for when a need to resolve mechanics forces a group of players to leave real-time roleplay and exist in sort of a time-stopped “bubble” while the rest of the game continues to roleplay around them. Needless to say, combat bubbles are widely disliked for the way they break people out of character, ruin immersion and bog down the game. Kevin presented a system used by the MIT Assassins’ Guild (called “Darkwater”) which attempts to keep theater-style combat as real-time as possible. While no system is perfect, this one did sport some serious advantages over the types of systems we commonly see in theater-style LARPs in the Intercon community. It also shared a key trait of the Accelerant boffer system which enabled its speed and fluidity (but I’ll get to that in a moment).

All of which got me thinking: what is it about boffer mechanics (and the Accelerant system in particular) that I like so much? And what, if any of it, can we steal for use in theater LARPs?

A Cool LARPing Moment

Before we go any further let me describe a cool LARPing moment I witnessed in the Accelerant system. It’s not my all time favorite moment, but it’s a good illustration for what I want to talk about, and it doesn’t really involve any boffer combat, lest you think the only thing I like about the system is the actual fighting, (While enjoyable, it doesn’t really speak much to improving theater-style mechanics). I’ll probably get some of the little details wrong, as it has been over a year, but here goes:

I was playing in Lost Eidolons, a “Lovecraftian Steampunk” boffer LARP. The setting has a church which is, like many fantasy churches, essentially an exaggerated version of the medieval Catholic Church. One of the PCs, Father Sahaal, had risen through the ranks of the Church to become a member of the Inquisition. However, both because of internal church power struggles and because the PCs were rapidly uncovering rather unorthodox truths about the world (it’s Lovecraftian, after all), Sahaal had found his beliefs solidly in the realm of Heresy. Sahaal’s superior, a sort of Arch-Inquisitor, had shown up to make him recant. He dragged the PC out onto the field as a cold rain fell. The other PCs followed to lend support and testify about the good he had done. He refused to recant, and the two began an intense scene of accusations and counter-accusations. At the height of the scene, with Sahaal still spouting heresies, the Arch-Inquisitor reached over, as though seizing him by the throat, and said “By my gesture, permanent silence by pain”. The sentence told us everything we needed to know to imagine the action – Sahaal’s larynx had been crushed – or worse. Sahaal’s player knew how to roleplay it out without skipping a single beat, acting out extreme pain combined with a newfound inability to scream. The Arch-Inquistor coldly walked away, nothing more needed to be said. In the end, Sahaal had made his choice and was silenced one way or another.

The great thing about this scene, and the mechanics behind it, is how dramatic action was allowed to integrate seamlessly with the verbal roleplay that was going on. The arch-inquisitor’s action provided a surprising and abrupt climax to the scene, and carried more weight than almost anything that could have been said. At the same time, the mechanics were seamless enough that no one had to pause their roleplay to determine what had happened – which would immediately have taken a lot of the drama out of the scene.

A Bit About the Accelerant System

The Accelerant system, like most boffer systems, is an all-realtime system. The game never pauses to resolve anything. GMs never enter game strictly as a GM, though staff often plays NPCs who can be discreetly taken aside if you have a question in need of a GM.

Players are responsible for remembering all their special abilities (though a cheat sheet is often provided which can be discreetly checked, the game will never stop for you to do so). A player who has forgotten to use an ability has simply forgotten to use an ability. That being said, the need for some moderate memorization rarely causes problems. Almost all abilities work off a standard system of “calls” which let players know who is being affected, what the effect is, and what the in-game flavor of it is- in other words, what they should be picturing. Calls take the following form:

(delivery method)(effect) by (flavor keyword)

The delivery method is largely self explanatory – an effect can be “by my gesture” (affects the person gestured at) “by my voice” (affects everyone who hears it) etc. The effects come from a list of standardized effects, which players are expected to memorize. Most of those are also pretty self explanatory- “paralyze” freezes you in place, “frenzy” causes you to attack wildly, etc. The keyword is just flavor to aid roleplay, so you know what happened. If someone points a prop gun at you and says “By my gesture, 5 damage by fire” you might picture the effect as a flamethrower, whereas if they point the same gun and say “by my gesture, 5 damage by light” you might picture it as a laser.

Important Differences

So going back to my example above, how would this play out under typical intercon-theater-style rules? At the climax of the scene the Inquisitor would pull a special ability out of his pocket. He would present this index card to the poor priest, who would read it. If we are lucky, they compare some numbers and get on with it. If we are unlucky, and we often are, the victim will begin rifling through his pockets for his own abilities, a GM will be called to adjudicate and a “time bubble” will form while everyone waits. People outside of the bubble will be told, out of character, that they can’t enter; nearby PCs will decide they wanted to have intervened and make their case to the GM; and, if we’re particularly unlucky, a rules argument may break out. So with this in mind, we can forgive someone who sees mechanics as something which snaps people out of the drama, rather than something which can provide its climax.

So what’s the difference? It’s not actually boffer combat, as this example featured none. There are a few main factors which allow the accelerant version of these events work so seamlessly, and I’ll list them in reverse order of importance.

The least important is also going to be the least popular, but I’m not sure there’s a way around it: memorization. There’s just no denying that people who have memorized their stats and the rules of the game are going to be able to come closer to a seamless, real-time experience than those who need to stop to look things up. The Accelerant rules require players to know their stats and abilities in order to resolve them in real time. In Intercon-style games, players are generally allowed to pause and look through their abilities before responding. Largely this is cultural; players who are not expected to memorize any of their stats won’t, and some will come to believe that they can’t. Another has to do with incentives: in an Accelerant LARP, the player who forgets their abilities simply can’t use them (and thus has an incentive to remember them), while in Intercon-style LARPs there is usually no penalty and thus no incentive to memorize.

Next, we have two interlinked concepts: standardization of system, and having an effects-based system. These are two factors that allow memorization to work at all, by keeping the list of things that need to be memorized to a reasonable level. Accelerant games use effect based calls: rather than having to memorize every skill in the entire game, players only have to memorize a smaller number of standardized effects. These effects are standard across Accelerant games so that players can go from game to game, never needing to memorize a new huge list of effects. In contrast, an Intercon-style game with 20 special abilities might have 20 differently worded effects, and having a standardized system between games is rare. Each new game, even games by the same authors, often have completely new systems.

This brings us to the related idea of who is responsible for each person’s mechanics. In many theater style LARPs, both players are responsible; that is, if a special ability is used, both the user and the victim read the ability in question to make sure it applies. In Accelerant games, only the user of an ability is responsible for knowing whether or not they can make the effect call, and only the victim is responsible for knowing if they were affected. This is a bit of a subtle shift, and might best be illustrated with an example:

A mugger in an Accelerant game might have an ability to knock someone out with a sap if their victim doesn’t see it coming. This ability’s description might read “If you can see both your opponents’ shoulder blades, you may strike them with a weapon and call ‘stun’”. Imagine this mugger decides to rob someone whom he doesn’t realize is actually a ghost. The ghost has the ability to call “no effect” to any physical weapon hit. The action goes down as follows: When the mugger gets behind the ghost he simply swings and calls “stun”, and the ghost replies “no effect”. The ghost doesn’t need to know how or under what conditions the mugger can stun him, only the effect. Similarly the mugger isn’t entitled to read the ghost’s ability, he just knows his attack didn’t work. In theater-style one shots, it’s not uncommon for the action to stop while each player reads and verifies the ability of the other. It’s the main reason theater-style one shots put special abilities on index cards rather than just on the character sheet: so they can easily be shown to other players.

This shift in responsibility has two effects that make the action more seamless. The first is that it helps reduce the memorization load: you don’t need to memorize a bunch of abilities like “backstab” and “incorporeal” – you just need to know your own abilities, plus a few standardized effect keywords. The second is the game never stops and leaves real-time while you verify an opponent’s ability.

The most important factor in cutting out “combat bubbles” is a little harder to express. It’s also a subtle shift. I believe it’s what Kevin Riggle referred to in his “Combat Bubbles Suck” panel as being “asynchronous”, and it’s what I loved so much about the system he was describing (“Darkwater Combat”) and what it had in common with boffer LARPs like the Accelerant system. The basic idea is this: when you make an attack (or other action) you are never required to wait for a response from the opponent before continuing your roleplay.

Many theater-style systems require each person to declare a number, roll a die, or pull a card before determining the outcome of the combat. In the time between declaring combat and when your opponent tells you their number, you are essentially stuck, caught in a time bubble. In a boffer game, of course, you swing and either miss or hit, but either way don’t have to wait for a response. Darkwater Combat shares this quality of boffer LARP by making each declaration of combat represent a single attack by a single person, rather than a complete exchange between two people. In this system you simply walk up to someone and declare the combat effect and the number (ex. “Knockout 3”). If your number is greater than your opponent’s, they are affected, if it isn’t, they aren’t. Either way you’re never stuck waiting for their response – you are free to declare an attack and immediately start walking away if you so desire.

So How Does this Apply to Theater-Style LARPs?

In talking about seamlessness in boffer LARPs, I’ve tried to avoid discussing the actual boffer combat as little as possible,  in order to come up with a list of traits for a seamless system that are relevant to theater-style games. Here’s a list of specific recommendations for how we can apply these principles to theater style one-shots:

Memorization: Really what we need here is a cultural shift. The only way this can be started is to set clear expectations for what players should memorize before coming in. This needs to be a reasonable amount – while players who play their characters weekend after weekend in a campaign game may easily remember 20 special abilities and 6 stats (which is what my Lost  Eidolons character has), a reasonable amount for a 4 hr. one shot might be a single stat and 0-2 one-sentence special abilities. We should consider rules that say things like “If you’re attacked by someone with a certain combat value, you need to respond with your own value within 3 seconds, or you are considered to have lost”, to incentivize knowing your stats (which, again, must be combined with not having too much to remember).

Finally, GMs and writers need to get rules – not just general rules, but all of a player’s specific abilities and stats – to players well ahead of time. How many times have you shown up to a game only to be handed a stack of ability cards you’d never seen before? There’s just no way to expect a player to have their abilities memorized if they’re seeing them for the first time at check-in 5 minutes before game-on. Abilities and stats should, ideally, be given to players at the same time as character sheets.

Standardized, Effect-based System: The idea of a universal or shared LARP system is one that doesn’t have much traction in the Intercon community, for a variety of reasons. Some GMs like tinkering with rules, others want to closely tailor rules to a specific genre, and it certainly doesn’t help that while I’ve seen bad published LARP systems (that play like “tabletop standing up”) I don’t think I’ve seen any good ones. Not to mention that unless you’re willing to attempt to run in real-time, there isn’t much advantage to having a standardized system. If we are going to kill the ‘combat-bubble’ and try to go real-time, I think having a basic system that could be shared between games is worth another look. This system should be little more than a list of common effect calls, divorced from flavor, so as to be easily adapted to any genre. The abilities that use those effects would of course be created by each individual GM that decides to use the system.

For instance, one of the effects could be “truth” which means “the question immediately preceding this call must be answered, and truthfully”. A GM writing a noir game might have an ability that says “if you’re pointing a gun at someone within arms reach, you may ask them one question and say “Truth by intimidation”. A GM writing a fairy tale game might have an ability that says that once per game the wizard can ask a question and say “Truth by magic”.

In either situation, the benefit is that a player can react seamlessly in real-time, and the benefit for the two games sharing standardized calls is that players only have to memorize a single set of effects. A half a dozen standard effects is probably plenty, and could cover a majority of the most common special ability effects that are used between players.

Finally, any such system should be open-source, so that it can be freely used and adapted by any GM that desires.

Shift in Responsibility: This one is pretty easy: We just need to explicitly say in our ruleset that a player is solely responsible for declaring the effects of their abilities, and their target is solely responsible for declaring whether or not it affected them. Something else that might help is to stop giving players index cards with a single ability printed on each one. It will reduce the instinct to always fish out and show your opponent the ability card you’re using (with the side benefit of saving a lot of printing hassle).

“Asynchronous” Combat: We need to stop modeling combat as a single “round” that requires input from both players, and start modeling it as a series of actions which only requires the input of the acting player.

Theater-style mechanics are often far from real-time and lead to huge “time bubbles” – but they don’t have to. Boffer-style games that remain 100% real-time, do so not just through the use of live combat, but through a set of underlying principles which theater-style one-shots could easily adopt. When a rules system is truly real-time, it’s not only less disruptive to the drama of a scene, it also can heighten that drama by allowing the seamless performance of dramatic actions that would otherwise be impossible. If we get into the mindset that the game need never pause for rules resolution, we may find that a lot of the tension between rules and roleplay disappears.

Brian R. has been theater LARPing for about 6 years and boffer LARPing for about 3 years. He makes up half of the theater LARP writing team called Lovers and Madmen, which ran its first LARP, Redemption: High Noon at the Devil’s Luck in 2010, and has since also written and run Stars of Al-Ashtara and Venezia.

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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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14 Responses to Guest Post: Boffer Lessons for Theater

  1. A post by Brian! Huzzah!

    Really, really good, thoughtful stuff. I wish I could think of more moments like the one from Lost Eidolons. It sounds really powerful.

    I also wish I could figure out a way to use something more real-time for Cracks–not that it’s the type of game where I anticipate a lot of combat, and the combat system is designed to be pretty deterministic anyway–but there will be special abilities and whatnot. But without an entire perspective shift, I’m not sure how I’d do it.

    • Replying to myself… how gauche.

      But I wanted to say, this post really got me thinking about how I can incorporate these elements into Cracks, since the mechanics are relatively unformed still.

      I think there are a couple of ideas I’m going to incorporate. I like the “verily” idea listed below, and I think I may use that for special abilities within the game. I’m also going to try to heavily limit the number of abilities each player has–say 0-2, as you suggested–and make sure that people understand that the onus is on them to remember how those abilities work. I usually include the abilities in the character sheets that are sent out, so I hope they will have sufficient time to learn them.

      • Fair Escape says:

        If you like the “verily” idea, and concepts in this guest post, you should talk to Brian about his more specific ideas about a universal system. He was telling me about how most inter-character skills can be grouped into maybe 6 or so calls.
        For example, a lot of people have some kind of Truth ability, but it’s not always “answer the following truthfully.” (Though it can be.) Imagine you have a character and they can figure out where someone’s loyalties lie. With his system, you can tell the character “if you have a conversation with someone for 5 minutes, you may ask “to whom are you most loyal?” and use the Truth by Charm call. Everyone knows that if someone says “Truth” you must answer their question truthfully, though they don’t know the specifics of your ability (they don’t have to know it must be after a five minute conversation, they don’t know it had to be a loyalty question). So like in Accelerant, everyone is memorizing just their own abilities and a limited list of standard calls. Charm just indicates the flavor (and provides an opportunity to create characters with a Hard Hearted flavor if you want to say “you may ignore any call with the tag ‘by charm.'”

        Another example Brian gave: a detective character might have the ability that says, “if you point your gun at someone, you may ask them any question with the call Truth by Intimidation.” The flavor of the interaction is clear. The detective needs to know he has to have his gun out, other players only need to know what the Truth tag means.

        Highly customizable, but in practice pretty simple. I think. I would just love to see this developed into a full standard system and then playtest it, maybe with some short simple LARP. I think it could actually be a really great contribution to theater LARPing… I just need to convince Brian to write another guest post…

  2. Black hart of Camelot uses this sort of simplified boffer system in what is essentially a theatreform game. Combat is handled by latex swords (or, if you don’t have any, by comparing hit-point totals and optional paper-scissors-rock). Magic is handled by the keyword “Verily” followed by a short description of the effect (e.g. “verily, you may not approach”, or “verily, I appear to be Guinevere”). So all you need to remember is the keyword, to go with whatever people say, and in some cases a meta-rule about how long effects last.

    This system has caught on a bit in NZ theatreforms because its so easy and intuitive. You can use different words in different settings (e.g. Betrothals and Betrayals, which is a Strange-and-Norrell style game, uses “glamour”), and the rule is as broad as the effects you can come up with.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I’ve heard of similar systems, and I very much like the concept- I’d love to try it. I think there might be an advantage to having a system of standard calls, rather than just the one “verily”) because people will know the details of each (how long does one have to stay away) and has the flexibility to allow some people to resist some types of magic but not others (if they appear to be Genievere thanks to fae magic, maybe some fae characters can see right through it.)

      On the other hand, maybe players are more flexible than I give them credit for and they can just roll with just the one call. One way to find out! (Maybe I can get a run of Black Hart going in my area.)

  3. The beauty of “verily” is precisely that they don’t need to know any other standard calls – just go with the assigned magical truth. If you can resist magic, it will be noted on your character sheet, which you can either announce, or not, or just make obvious by your actions (“Your charms do not work on me, old man!”)

    I highly recommend Black Hart (I’ve played it twice in different parts of the game); my review of it is here

    The combat larps here use standard calls rather than verily – e.g. stun, double, pain (AIUI, their systems are derived from the UK). Because our combats and theatreformers talk to each other, we’re getting some fruitful cross-pollenation, and a significant increase in production values.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I think the verily system would be fantastic for certain games, I think for others people want to be more specific with the abilities (and how they interact with them) without people having to be too specific when they use the calls. For example, in Accelerant, when someone says “short root by fear” I know exactly how long it lasts and what it takes to be free of it, or whether I can resist it (without being able to resist everything). With verily, someone might say “verily, I freeze you in place!” and I might need to clarify for how long, what breaks it, and if I can move nothing, or everything but my feet, etc. With Accelerant, I’ve already memorized what “short” means, what “root means” and fear is just an arbitrary label that I might be able to resist if my character has the “courageous” ability or something. I think it just depends on how fluid you want abilities to be, and how much you trust your players to just go with the flow and not abuse the freedom.

      Black Hart sounds fantastic (I think I’ve read your review before!) and while the lack of balance in importance/business of the characters is a bit concerning, I’d still love to give it a try. I just need to find someone willing to run it for me. Then I’d be happy to run it for others.

      LARPing in NZ sounds awesome (I’ve been poking around the NZ LARP boards). One of these days I’m going to have to make it out there for some LARPing.

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