Boffer LARPs have a lot of cultural relics and tropes borrowed from tabletop RPGs and video games. There’s one in particular currently on my mind — that of loot drops from enemies.
I’m talking about the practice of sending out various sorts of monsters and bad guys to fight with some kind of loot on them (often in an NPC’s pocket in the form of an item card), that PCs get to take when they search the body of the fallen.
I personally dislike this practice for various reasons. My biggest issue is that we treat it as more than common place. We treat it as something PCs expect to be able to do and are expected by the staff to do it. But if you think about what is actually happening, supposedly heroic PCs are killing things (or knocking things out) then kneeling down and rifling through the pockets of the fallen. It seems so crass, so disrespectful. I think many people don’t think of it as such because they don’t actually have to rifle through pockets. (Or check orifices?) In Accelerant LARPs, that action is represented abstractly by stating “I search you” to an NPC, and if the NPC has loot on them, they simply hand it over. This makes searching bodies feel much quicker and cleaner than it actually would be.
Beyond being distasteful, it’s frequently done while combat is still going on. In other words, while allies are still fighting for their lives, PCs are stooping to rifle through pockets in the hopes of finding small items of even a little value.
There’s a very good meta reason why people have to do this while combat is still going on. Boffer LARPing frequently has monsters and bad guys “respawning,” meaning after being slain, they wait a bit on the ground, then drop out-of-character to leave the battlefield in order to return as the next wave of monsters. This is how we deal with wanting players to fight more monsters than there are available NPCs. So if you don’t search the bodies right away, they vanish from the field (in Accelerant, we say they “go to spirit”, and leave the field in “spirit-form”). Even if the monsters aren’t respawning, we generally don’t want to force NPCs to stay on the field, pretending to be unconscious for as long as the PCs might want before searching them. That can be boring and uncomfortable, and NPCs staying out on the field as unconscious or dead enemies can lead to them getting stepped on.
Because of this very practical out-of-game reason for searching before the danger has fully passed, I can understand why people are comfortable ignoring the lack of chivalry of searching for loot while the battle still rages. But I still can’t bring myself to do it. So I generally don’t search fallen enemies, unless I have a specific reason to. (Such as believing the enemies are carrying a specific stolen item that the PCs really need.)
This becomes a problem for me when the in-game economy is built with the idea that much of the money (and items) coming into it is off of dead (or unconscious) bodies. My character quickly becomes the poorest person in the game because I’m avoiding a significant source of income (possibly even the primary — or only — source of income for some events.) I notice this when I can’t afford upkeep costs on my own, or merchants are selling basic items well outside my price range. I’m sure other players have felt this dilemma before — either decide your character is the kind of person who searches bodies for loot, or accept poverty.
This can also cause problems when the writing staff expects players to loot bodies in order to further the plot, but they don’t. I was once lured into the forest with a group of PCs and attacked by hostile fairies. Our guides also died. We were utterly stumped on what to do next, until it occurred to someone to search the bodies. (I think our hint was the fact that the NPCs remained lying on the ground for much longer than they usually do.) If we hadn’t thought to search them, that plot would have hit a dead end.
I don’t think it’s just an issue for those of us who refuse to search bodies. If this is the primary way the LARP introduces resources like crafting components and money into the in-game economy, then front-line melee fighters are at a huge advantage over everyone else — they tend to be right there when bodies are dropped, so they have the most opportunities, by far, to collect loot.
Meanwhile, ranged fighters get fewer opportunities to pick up loot, and healers are the ones most commonly shafted by this system. They tend to hide in the back, or sit in the triage area, trying to be in contact with allies while avoiding contact with the enemies as much as possible. I realize that, arguably, melee fighters probably take the most risk and so should get higher rewards, but I find the loot ends up disproportionately in the hands of melee fighters and pretty much none of it makes its way to the healers. (Healers often get treated like free health batteries and are shamed or demonized if they try to get payment for healing. They’re similarly frowned upon if they are selective about healing people who mistreat them or behave in ways contrary to the healers’ morals. I used to play a lot of healers in tabletop RPGs and LARPs, so I take this issue rather personally… and probably not entirely objectively. This is one reason why I’ve drifted away from playing healers.)
I become even more reluctant to participate in looting bodies when the item drops stretch or break my suspension of disbelief by being illogical or even impossible. Why so many random forest animals or creatures who live in caves and dungeons are carrying crafting components for gear and items, or even just gold coins, often isn’t explained. Sure, some of these creatures might be scavengers who collect random shiny objects, but why do they all have these items on them at all times? Don’t scavengers often drop these things off in a nest or something? If they don’t have hands, how are they carrying them while fighting us? Are they carrying the items in their cheeks, the way squirrels carry nuts? And if so, did my character just pry a dead animal’s jaw opens in the hopes of finding something inside?
Because these are common RPG and video game tropes, I think many LARPers have no problem ignoring these implications. But I have trouble with it.
This issue goes hand in hand with the reverse problem — that you can’t loot some items off enemies even though there’s no real in-game reason not to. For example, after defeating a troop of enemy soldiers, in boffer LARPs, one generally can’t take their swords or armor off them, though they should be reasonably valuable. They need to hold on to their weapons and costuming so that they can respawn, and even if they aren’t respawning, you don’t want to deplete the staff and NPCs of their boffer weapons and props. It would quickly become difficult to keep track of everyone’s weapons, and would probably result in both staff and players mixing up and losing props. Personally, I don’t find that this interferes with my suspension of disbelief much, perhaps because it involves ignoring a lack of action — that is, ignoring the fact that no one is collecting weapons — instead of refusing an action that everyone else is actively participating in around me.
It gets worse when the loot is a body part of the fallen monster. Lots of LARPs have systems for crafting potions, with ingredients like “eye of newt” or “tiger fang” or bones or fur or feathers or claws… or even organs, If I lean over an NPC and whisper “I search you” and they hand over an item card that says “spider poison sac,” valuable because potion brewers can use it for various things… does that mean my character just carved out an organ from a dead spider without my intending that action? Generally, I don’t intend to have my character carve up monsters for useful parts. I suppose if a LARP desired to address this issue, one could divide the looting into two actions, with “I search you” meaning a character simply searches for loot, and “I scavenge your parts” meaning “I cut out whatever there is on you that some potion crafter might be able to use.” (Though this would require every single monster to have all possible forms of scavenged loot every time they re-spawn, which is hard to coordinate, or come up with an explanation as to why some body parts can’t be scavenged at random times — such as damage from combat rendering their parts unusable — but that may strain credibility at times.
Another issue with monsters dropping body parts as loot — there often isn’t a logical in-game explanation for why some monsters only ever drop one body part at time, when they should provide many. (For example, when a dragon is slain, why is it only possible to get one dragon scale off of them?)
In Cottington Woods, one of the NPCs has offered a bounty on the wolves that prowl the area. PCs bring wolf ears as proof of their kill to the NPC, who trades it for money. I think this is a reasonable twist on the loot dropping system. It doesn’t involve the monsters (i.e. the wolves) carrying valuable items on them that wolves wouldn’t actually carry around. And it doesn’t involve players searching the bodies and unexpectedly winding up with body parts that they didn’t intend to cut off or cut out of the monster. PCs tell the NPCs playing the wolves that they are cutting an ear off, and the NPCs only need to carry a single sort of loot on them.
This also creates an interesting in-game dilemma for the characters. The wolves are intelligent in this setting, and there’s an ongoing effort to create some kind of peace or truce with them. (Simply dominating or killing off the pack entirely don’t seem like reasonable options, since we’re trying to build a community in their territory, so they probably outnumber us and know the land better than we do.) This leads to us roleplaying out some interesting debates — is it right to kill the wolves? Is it right to cut off their ears? Is it disrespectful to maim their dead? (Or knock them out and take an ear before they wake up?) Is it going to hurt our chances for ever having peace with the wolves? I’ve seen this debate come up a number of times.
Additionally, we’re not carving out organs (which generally should take some anatomical knowledge, skill, and time) on the off chance they might be useful components — so suspension of disbelief isn’t strained in that way. We explicitly know why we’re taking the ears, and we’re not conflating searching for treasure with cutting off a body part. And taking an ear is something that would be reasonably quick and easy for anyone, no matter how inexperienced they are.
But this doesn’t solve my personal problem of finding a common source of income distasteful. I don’t want my character maiming animals, intelligent or not. (Or killing animals when it isn’t strictly self-defense.) I’m finding the plot that revolves around trying to broker a peace with the wolf packs very interesting, and I don’t want to turn my character into someone the wolves particularly dislike or distrust. (Though I suspect they’ll never know for sure who hasn’t been killing wolves and cutting off ears for the bounty.)
And while I really like the in-game moral dilemma and source of interesting roleplay and debate between PCs, I’m somewhat concerned that by refusing to take part in this common source of money, I’m going to wind up with the poorest character again. (I doubt my character would care much, but out-of-character, I don’t particularly want to have this handicap or end up as a drain on another character’s resources.)
It’s still fairly early in the campaign, so I yet don’t have a good sense of how much my personal preference not to loot bodies or cut ears off of wolves will affect my experience. It’s still too early to get a good sense of the in-game economy.
Meanwhile, I heard in Clockwork Skies this past weekend (which I’m really bummed about missing), some of the monsters had abilities that went off when they were searched. (Players who tried to search them were knocked out by, essentially, contact poison, and the first person who tried to heal them would be drained by poison.) There were some circumstances that rendered this problematic (it was already a very difficult fight and it was too dark to read the instructions for the effect) but I like it a lot in theory. I love the idea of making players think twice about searching bodies. You’re not just clicking the “I want the treasure now” button, but you might actually be touching dangerous things and that makes searching bodies involve more thought about the risk vs. possible reward. It’s not just a mindless part of the process. I think this idea could be tweaked a bit to make it really effective and meaningful.
I’m curious to hear what other LARPers think about this system. Is it common in other boffer systems? Do you like it or dislike it? Why or why not?
ADDENDUM: In another forum, people discussing this post made an excellent point that I really feel I should add to this post. Looting bodies is historically accurate, and it was even frequently considered part of the payment for being a soldier or mercenary. Local peasants would loot bodies after wars, at least in part to recover what the war cost them. Generals have had to make laws about waiting until after the combat was over to loot.
I hadn’t considered this side of things, and now I’m looking at looting in an entirely new light. It has the potential to actually be a very immersive aspect of a gritty, realistic, historical LARP, especially one that focuses around war. I think the way I typically see it treated does not feel gritty or immersive to me because it’s treated so lightly — it’s quick and clean. (No one has to cut fingers off to get gold rings.) Even if this take doesn’t mesh with most heroic fantasy (especially ones based on fairy tales…) I think it could be a really amazing and effective if used carefully in conjunction with a grittier historical LARP.