Guards, guards!

An idea for a mechanics system for theater LARPs came to me this afternoon. It was partly inspired by a tv show I’ve been watching, which recently involved a character intimidating one guard into silence by slaughtering another right in front of him. It was also inspired by one of the mechanics in Venezia, the Renaissance LARP of three acts by Lovers and Madmen, in which assassin PCs got to flex their murder skills by killing off NPCs whose presence were represented by magnets on a board that kept track of the city-building mechanics.

For clarification, one of the plots in Venezia involved five Italian cities, Venice, Florence, Milan, and Ferrara, and Naples, competing to be the most influential city of Italy (and the future capital. Oddly, Rome was not in the running.) There were various ways to achieve influence, such as commissioning and displaying great works of art, patronizing works of literature or explorations of the New World, succeeding in military endeavors, etc. Having famous nobles live in your city — often relatives of the PCs — also increased a city’s influence, and PCs with assassin skills (or possibly those with assassin contacts) could remove them from the board.

There was also a system for electing the pope, and a handful of cardinal NPCs (also represented by magnets on the papal election board) who could be influenced to vote one way or another through methods like bribes, threats, blackmail, or appealing to their religious nature. They could also be assassinated and their votes removed from the election.

The aspect of this system that I rather liked was that it allowed people to play assassins and to feel like badass assassins without either introducing a means for PCs to murder one another freely (it’s always a bummer to be removed from a game early) or else murder one another, but be frustratingly restricted to only flexing their assassin skills in the last hour or so of the game. (The notion of a kill moratorium is an interesting concept that pops up in many theater LARPs, and similar concepts appear in boffer LARPs.) Letting PCs kill off NPCs whenever they want was a nice solution, I thought, and it reminded me of something I read about a fantasy boffer LARP in which the staff creates villages of NPCs for PCs to kill or rob to satisfy their desire to play evil characters without them needing to kill or rob fellow PCs.

There are probably a slew of other skills that LARP writers and/or GMs may want to give characters for the sake of those characters being able to say that they have those skills, but not necessarily want them to use on other PCs. For example, certain social skills, like charming or intimidating sometimes fall into this category. Players want to be able to play characters capable of charming or intimidating people, even if the player isn’t actually capable of doing it, but often other players don’t want to act as though they are automatically charmed or intimidated just because an ability described on a card shown to them says so. And LARP writers and/or GMs can provide NPCs who are vulnerable to these social skills — no PC gets annoyed about having to be automatically affected, but players can still feel as though their characters have skills they themselves lack.

Pick-pocketing is probably another such skill. It’s remarkable how frustrating players find being pick-pocketed in a game, more so than many other negative effects, and yet writers still want to include them into their LARPs. Maybe those pockets should be NPC pockets, as NPCs are just less alert than PCs, and more likely to stick keys and crash and widgets in their pocket, instead of holding them in their hands.

Which brings me my idea for a mechanical system for a theater LARP — a system of NPC guards. I had a lot of little potential ideas that I might include, which results in something that sounds incredibly over-detailed and clunky. Of course it would need to be streamlined; this is just a brainstorm.

I suspect this system would work well in a LARP set in a castle in a generic fantasy (though I’m sure it can adapt to other genres and settings) particularly if there are a lot of rooms that aren’t represented in real game space. A common example would be the personal apartments of the hosts and bedrooms where guests are sleeping, and have left their luggage and items that they don’t want to carry on their person (especially if a pick-pocket is in rumored to be present.) Other common locations might be the dungeon and the treasury. Additionally, there might be a library with valuable books, or a chapel with magic relics. All guarded by guards — not NPC guards represented by actual people, but there would be some binder containing sheets in the possession of one GM running the guard system.

Each guard would be represented by a sheet bearing his or her name and stats. They’d have a combat stat (one that fit in with whatever combat system the LARP has), and/or alternatively some sort of competency score for spotting people sneaking by. They might have scores for Loyalty to whomever has hired them. They might even have two sub-forms of loyalty – one Fear stat and one Love stat. (Or they might have a loyalty score that has either a “fear” or “love” descriptor. Some guards might have both.)

The guards would also have other various facts about them, perhaps based on short backgrounds that could be discovered in-game in various ways. They might be In Debt for some reason, or members of the dominant in game religion and be particularly Devout, or they might be secretly members of a persecuted minority religion. Their sexuality might be included on their stat cards. They might be gullible, or have particular grudges or have favorite foods or drinks.

And characters would have a variety of ways to interact with the guards. Characters who are meant to be attractive or charming might have a skill that allows them to seduce a guard, assuming the guard is attracted to their gender. Characters who are very rich might be a capable of offering them bribes. Clerics and priests might be able to appeal to them in the name of their religion. If a priest of the goddess of healing appealed to a devout guard in the name of the of their church, the guard might allow him by, but the effort would fail if the guard was secretly a worshiper of the god of death.

There might be some difficulty level for bribing a guard. The more debt the guard had (or other reasons to want money) the easier it would be, but the higher their Loyalty score is, the more money would be required. Similarly, seducing a guard would only work if the character’s Seduction ability was high enough to beat their loyalty scores.

In game actions might also affect some or all of the guards. If a guard gets executed by the king for failing at their duties, their Fear type of Loyalty scores might rise, but the Love Loyalty might lower. If a priest pulled off a miracle in public, religious guards might have their Devout scores rise. In which case appealing to them in the name of their god might become easier. PCs who procure enough funds in game might use it to raise their guards’ salaries (or just give them a bonus) and thus raise their Love Loyalty scores.

Characters could also try to sneak past them or stab them in the back (their sneak scores might have to beat the guard’s competency scores). Or they might just walk right up to and attack, in which case the PC’s combat scores would have to be higher.

PCs might also have abilities that reflect their ability to hide the body of a guard they’ve killed. If they have strength abilities, they might be able to drag the bodies out of the way. If the bodies are hidden, the PC’s whose room the guard was guarding would find out after half an hour of game time. If the bodies are left there, the PCs find out after 15 minutes.

PCs with access to alcohol might send some to the guards to lower their competency skills, PCs with  poisoning skills or pharmaceutical or herbal knowledge and access to the kitchens (or allies among the kitchen staff) might be able to spike their food or drinks.

All of this information about guards would be available to discover during the game. If the captain of the guards is a PC in game, he might know it all and be willing to trade information in game. PCs might know bits and pieces about their own individual guards, or PC spies might be able to discover it in game and sell it to whomever is willing to pay. Various PCs might also have relatives or friends among the NPC guards.

I think it also might be interesting for some PCs to be given a handful of cards representing their guards at the beginning of the LARP, and be permitted to designate which of them guard what. For example, let’s say the king is a PC and he is given five guards before the LARP begins. The king might have three rooms he wants to keep guarded during the LARP — the treasury, the dungeon, and his personal quarters. He gets to decide how many guards are stationed at each location, and which go where. He might choose to put the guard with the highest competency score in front of the room that contains his most valuable resources. He might choose to put the guard who is known to be a devout member of the king’s religion in front of the treasury, knowing the holy relic inside would make it impossible for someone to bribe the guard to let them past. And he might put a a guard who is uninterested in women in front of his personal quarters, because he knows his treacherous queen has seduced guards to get her way in the past.

Additionally, some random NPCs might show up during the game, saying that they’re looking for work, and whichever PC offers them the most money (or seems to have a cause most in line with their own) would get to designate what they guard.

On top of all of this, I have considered making whatever scores the guard NPCs and PCs have a secret. In other words, a character who has a charm ability has some score attached to it, but they don’t know the actual value of their ability. And the guards have Love and Fear Loyalty scores, but there is no way to know what it is. A PC would just have to try and hope they have a high enough score to beat the guard’s loyalty score. On the one hand, I can see this being frustrating to PCs, who assume they’re capable of seducing a guard and don’t know why they’ve failed, or are unwilling to risk failure. (Especially if failure has some in-game consequence, such as being put under arrest, or the guard simply telling their PC boss for who tried to get past them). On the other hand, I find when players know the numeric scores tied to their various abilities, it encourages very out-of-game dialog and thinking. You often hear people say things like “I have a score of five, with a potion that grants me plus two, I can successfully beat a guard with a score of six” instead of “I’m a talented swordsman, but I heard this guard won the melee tournament last week. I’m unlikely to defeat him on my own.” I think removing the scores might be a worthwhile experiment.

Of course, another way to remove this sort of out-of-character discussion of mechanical challenges might be to simply make it binary. A character who has the Seductive trait automatically gets past any guard who is attracted to their gender. On the other hand, this removes any possibility for finding creative ways for players to affect the scores. Alcohol might lower their Loyalty scores, or obtaining expensive perfume might raise a person’s Seduction score. That kind of adjustment is more difficult if the system is entirely either-or.

Anyway, those are some ideas I had for an NPC guard system. In the LARP I mentioned above, my princess character simple was allowed to go up to a GM five times during the game and state “I want to go in this room”. It was a decent ability to have, but if my character had to find out which guard was at which door, what various facts she could dig up about the guard, then find a way to get past them, possibly by creating an alliance with someone with the appropriate skill or resource to get past the guard… that might be an interesting in game challenge, a puzzle that might be fun to unravel.

Also, I like to imagine the GM in charge of the Guard system would be dressed like a palace guard from the setting.

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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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6 Responses to Guards, guards!

  1. Pickle says:

    Man, that description makes me really want to play Venezia!

    I like the idea of having a bunch of NPCs whose raison d’etre is to make the PCs feel skilled and relevant. I’ve got a couple of game ideas slowly churning in the back of my mind; I will drop this post in there and see if anything bubbles up.

  2. Alex says:

    Rome was likely not in the running since it was part of the Papal States at the time, an independent domain nominally under the control of the church (though in actuality it was fractured into sub-domains ruled by local princes of varying loyalty). Rome belonged to the Church, and the art they commissioned during this time period was for the glory of the church, rather than for the glory of the city (at least in theory).

    history geek strikes again!

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