Though Shalt Not Kill

I’ve played in many theater LARPs that allow for player death have had some sort of rule that prevents death too early on the game. This is commonly referred to as a “kill moratorium”.

The reasons for a moratorium on killing are fairly apparent. So long as there is combat in a LARP, there’s always a chance of players willing, even eager, to achieve their character’s goals by eliminating those in their paths as quickly as possible. (MIT LARPers have something of a reputation for this.) And this attitude can be clearly in line with the character’s personality as written or simply a player’s very own very personal spin.

Kill moratoria are a sort of compromise that allow for this kind of behavior. They indicate that the writers/staff will support characters solving their problems solely through murder, instead of outright forbidding it or trying to discourage it through significant mechanical disincentives, trying to write plots that can never be solved through murder, or trying to exercise some amount of control over the direction of the LARPs by writing characters who are explicitly against murder on a personal level… but players still have to wait and give their opponents at least a few hours of having fun living.

And we insist on ensuring all players at least a few hours of life because while character death near the end of a LARP can be a bummer, that’s a bummer we’re quite commonly willing to accept. Allowing for character death is often necessary to create tension and excitement and drama and a sense of danger. But dying too early is a much bigger bummer, one we’re less tolerant of. This is particularly true for players who invest a lot of time in preparing for a LARP (by, for example, reading all of the game materials, researching their role, procuring a costume, and/or traveling a long distance to attend) with the expectations of getting four hours of entertainment in-game, only to be removed from the game within, say, the first half hour. The longer and more involved the LARP is, the more relevant this becomes. (Most weekend long theater LARPs I play are at RPI, a three hour drive for any of us players from the Boston area, and unsurprisingly, many of these LARPs prevent character death until Sunday.)

And we have several other common methods of dealing with death eliminating players from the fun, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. One is to write some amount of replacement characters so that players can be recast if their character dies. But it’s very difficult to write compelling characters such that the possibility of them never showing up won’t be detrimental to the game. Some LARPs involve allowing players to play on in a ghostly form, though that can render killing characters meaningless, thus robbing players of agency. Similarly, some LARPs have forms of auto-resurrection, but like the ghost forms, that can rob players of agency and make the game seem much less tense and dramatic, rendering death either meaningless or merely a temporary inconvenience.  (For example, one LARP I played over a weekend had a mechanic where every dead character was resurrected every hour, on the hour. Death never removed characters from the game for long.)

On top being very disappointing for the player whose character has died, the death of a character can also severely diminish the LARP for other players. Death can cut off plots prematurely and leave other players with less to do. Games with dense interconnections between characters are often poorer for the loss of any given character. Ideally, a theater LARP would be written to still have plenty for all characters to do and a variety of ways the plots can develop even if a relevant character or two is removed, but no LARP is written perfectly.

Most theater LARPs I’ve played are four hours long, and when they contain moratoriums on killing, they usually last until the third hour (or sometimes they end after three and half hours), adjusted as needed for late starts. Most people who sign up for a four hour LARP expect four hours of entertainment, but would not consider themselves significantly short changed if they only got to play for three. And if character death reduces available plot and opportunity for roleplaying, then those elements are only reduced for the last hour, and the damage is minimized.

Other potential motivations for GMs using moratoria on killing might include, encouraing their players to find more interesting, entertaining means of accomplishing goals (and less permanent solutions that keep the fun going). In some settings, committing murder and getting away with it isn’t terribly realistic, but it’s difficult to accurately represent factors that would deter people from murder (fully staffed police forces and modern forensic science, for example.) So the moratorium is something of a patch for that.

There are two primary methods of dealing with such moratoria with regards to its relationship to the in-game world of the LARP. The first is to just simply say the moratorium exists as an out-of-game mechanic, and there is nothing in game to explain or justify it — it just is, and players should steer their characters around it. This method sometimes extends to all forms of violence altogether, with games simply lacking mechanics for combat.

The other method is to try and create some in-game justification for it. An example might be to say that players should assume NPC guards are always about (or just behind every corner) and the guards will break up any fight as soon as it begins before any significant damage is dealt. The 1001 Arabian Nights themed Stars of Al-Ashtara specifies that this only lasted as long as the daylight allowed the guards to see, which justifies ending the moratorium against deadly violence in the last hour of the LARP. Lighting effects are used to indicate daytime turning to dusk turning to night. Other LARPs might explain that some magic is keeping characters alive, but that it fails (or is removed) at some point during the LARP.

I find the former method — not offering any in-game explanation for characters being unable to kill one another — is more common. On the surface, it seems as though it might be more damaging to immersion. Being unable to perform an action that a character wants to perform and, logically, should be able to can pull a player out of the mindset of their character. It can interrupt in in-character thought process and bring a player out of the moment, so to speak.

By contrast, having an in-game justification allows players to work through their situation with in-character thinking, i.e. “I’d  like to stab that guy, but surely while it’s still light out, someone will see me and stop me.” But when it seems as though the in-game justification should no longer apply (“why can’t I just trick him into entering the privacy of my shop and kill him there?” or “I don’t care if I get caught; it’s worth being arrested to kill this person”) then it can be just as immersion breaking, because the thought process still ends in the same place (“my character would kill this guy even with the guards present, but ultimately a mechanic stands in the way.”) Worse, players may want to argue with a GM why the in-game justification for ignoring the moratorium shouldn’t apply and feel frustrated when told “it doesn’t matter, the rule still applies.”

Interestingly, A Game of Thrones; Blackfyre Rising (a LARP set in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire books, and one of my personal favorite LARPs) has a boffer melee tournament, but no mechanics for violence outside of the confines of the tourney rounds. (Which makes it a fascinating case, to me, because I would argue that it is a rather unique example of a LARP that contains some boffer mechanics, and yet I would still classify it as a theater LARP. It would make for a fascinating topic when discussing the taxonomy of LARPs.) I was able to convince a LARPer friend of mine who plays almost exclusively boffer LARPs to play Blackfyre Rising (the setting and the presence of the boffer tournament helped a lot), and after the LARP he remarked that he found it strange and mildly frustrating to be unable to attack another player outside of the tourney no matter how strong his motives were. (The source materials for the LARP is also chock full of violence, making a lack of violence in the city of King’s Landing a bit odd.)

Unlike most of the the theater LARPs I’ve played, boffer LARPs are nearly always run as campaigns, rather than one shots. (To date, I’ve only been involved with one theater campaign, and I have yet to meaningfully try any Mind’s Eye Theater campaigns.) So character death is a even less desirable than it is in a theater one-shot. If a character dies at the end of a theater one-shot, that’s alright, the player wasn’t going to be continuing that role either way. But in boffer campaigns, players expect to be able to reprise their roles many times for each event in the campaign. Also, players typically create their own characters, which creates a much larger emotional attachment to the character. Death denies the players a lot more –when it is permanent, that is.  This is why many boffer LARPs (certainly all of the Accelerant LARPs I’ve been involved with, either as a PC or an NPC) have some sort of resurrection system which may not ever allow for permanent death.

Dealing with character death is a controversial topic in boffer LARPing. Some feel very strongly that PCs shouldn’t die — after all, as I mentioned, players get very attached to them, and they put a great deal of time and effort (and money) into creating and advancing them. On the other hand, if resurrection is guaranteed, and at relatively low cost (or even zero cost), death loses its meaning, and it becomes harder to make danger seem significant.

There are a variety of methods for addressing this and trying to find some middle ground — for example, resurrection may be available but comes at a steep cost (and what constitutes a steep cost, and how steep the cost should be are complicated questions) or perhaps resurrection is not guaranteed, so dying is always a risk. Some LARPs have rules that decrease the likelihood of being resurrected each time a character dies, which means permanent death (or “perming”) is both possible and there is a cost to resurrection.

Cottington Woods, interestingly, has a resurrection system (with a creepy in-game effect — new gravestones pop up in the local graveyard bearing the names of those who have died and come back), but also introduced a coma rule, which allows players to have their characters go into a coma in most situations that would otherwise kill them. The coma rule’s effect on the game – on how dangerous it feels, on how death and danger is treated both makes the LARP seem a bit less dangerous, but also increases the emotional impact of death by virtue of making it much rarer. Thus far, I’m a fan of the coma rule.

Despite these differences between how death affects a theater one shot LARP vs. how it affects a boffer campaign LARP, we still see versions of a kill moratorium in boffer LARPs. For example, in many boffer LARPs, PCs are capable of delivering a coup de grace to automatically kill someone. (In the Accelerant rule system, one does so by touching a weapon to someone’s torso and stating “deathstrike one, deathstrike two, deathstrike three.”)

Many games I’ve played allow anyone to perform a deathstrike, though Shadows of Amun requires players to specifically buy a skill  that grants the deathstrike ability, and those skills tag a player with the Cold-Blooded trait. (Which logically implies that the average person can’t actually bring themselves to kill a helpless person.) And even in LARPs where all PCs are free to use deathstrike, they are likely to only use it on NPCs. Meanwhile, in Monster Camp, I’ve often heard staff remind NPCs that they are “not deathstrike active” — meaning they do not have permission to deliver a coup de grace to PCs. In Accelerant, it’s also possible to stat NPCs in such a way that no actions during battle will result in death. Only “called damage” causes PCs to bleed out without medical help — every other effect wears off after some amount of rest. By denying the NPCs any abilities that grant called damage, it becomes impossible to let a PC accidentally die due to lack of medical attention.

In theory, anyway. I NPCed in a battle where the monsters were incapable of killing the PCs for lack of called damage, but a PC somehow died anyway. There are only two possibilities — either he got hit with friendly fire from a fellow PC, or someone made a mistake with the rules. But I digress.

“Deathstrike active” status is saved for battles that are meant to be particularly dangerous, such as the climax of season closing events. (As I like to remind everyone when I NPC, if Monster Camp doesn’t have coffee available on Sunday mornings, I become deathstrike active.) I find this form of a kill moratorium to be less intrusive than they are in theater LARPs, though I am unsure why. Perhaps it has to do with the notion that bodies vanishing from a field of battle is extremely common in boffer LARPs (as NPCs need to respawn) and so the question of what to do with an unconscious foe is often ignored in a way that it isn’t ignored in many theater LARPs.

In both boffer and theater, some LARPers find kill moratoria with in-game justification to be more damaging to immersion, others feel kill moratoria without in-game justification is more damaging. Which leaves it largely up to writer/GM discretion, and there is no right choice… but on a more optimistic note, this also means neither choice is particularly wrong. either.

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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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9 Responses to Though Shalt Not Kill

  1. Rick Pierce says:

    Having never done theatre LARP, I can’t speak to the theatre LARP models, though I find the discussion of them fascinating.

    As to boffer LARPs, every one I’ve played has had a resurrection mechanism. I generally find that as long as the mechanism is enjoyable and isn’t just there to keep me out of game for some period of time, I’m ok with it.

    As a staff member at one of them I played the Reaper in the gate of death. Beside handling the logistics of death, my job was to provide a fun encounter for the player. It had both potential positive and negative outcomes and certain cards in the deck of Fate could even provide the character additional plot involvement in future plots.

    In that particular case I’d say there was roughly a 1 in 50 chance of perming your character. That dangerous enough to keep you afraid of dying, but low enough that in 15 years there have only been 3 permanent deaths.

    As a player, I permed my very first ever character after playing him for 16 years. From a player perspective it was one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced. My wife said I moped for 6 months, which is about the way I remember it seven years later. All the things you say about it are true. It’s horrible. Would I remove permanent death from the game? No. You mourn the loss of something dear to you and move on… well, maybe, eventually. 😉 I love the character I replaced him with even more.

    What I did find helpful in this circumstance was that i had that secondary character already developed when the first one died. I had made my emotional safety net. I’m not sure I’d have kept playing the game had that not been the case. Designing a character when you’re in an emotionally good head space is a lot easier than when you’ve just lost someone who feels like your best friend.

    As to your coffee joke, I love it and relate to it. To me it was a fantastic ending to the post. 🙂

    • Fair Escape says:

      I personally don’t mind if a resurrection mechanic takes me out of the LARP for a bit if it’s only as a PC. Some LARPs have used this time to let PCs temporarily NPC, which I like because there’s still fun stuff to do but the other PCs actually temporarily feel the loss. Lost Eidolons actually gave some players a choice about how long to be out of game, from no time to… I forget how long, and the longer a player was out, the less severe the mechanical drawback they got from the resurrection process. I like that they let players kind of decide what was more important to them.

      Losing a character is rough, especially in an indefinite game. I know someone whose character permed during the final battle of the final event, and even that can be kind of rough.

      The emotional safety net of a backup character ready to go in case of a character perming is a very interesting idea. I wonder if the Cottington Woods staff would let me create another golem made by the same creator if tragedy struck Quill…

  2. Ivan Žalac says:

    Hmm, interesting. I have never encountered any kill moratorium. Of course, there were many larps where killing anyone would make no sense due to writing (e.g. a larp centered around a group of friends). Other than that, various larps I played have different ways of mitigating it. It is even more of a problem in campaign larps, as players feel they lose not only playtime but also months or even years of time invested in leveling the character.

    The Vampire campaign I run has a system which (in the long term) has an ever-shrinking monthly XP cap, so that old players get their XP slowly. The minimum XP increases over time, and those players will hit cap reductions at higher points. Those two mechanisms increase the ability for new characters to catch up with old ones (also, players can “shelve” their old characters for the time being and play an alt until the situation is more favorable).

    The fantasy campaign I run (Terra Nova) has a very low power increase, and new characters are very close in power to veterans who’ve been playing for years. Plus, NPCs can’t use the killing blow which works like your deathstrike (though the count is up to five), however charaters that they drop down can bleed to death if they are not helped in time. And in case a character dies, they can often continue to play their characters in the undead faction. So there’s several “safety nets” for that.

    Several larps I know have no leveling system, and that makes it easier for them to handle death, such as preparing the backup characters in advance if the primaries are likely to die. There are also a few larps that completely disallow death.

    Drachenfest was cool. They have a place called Limbo, which is actually a maze made of several tents, filled with NPCs and with the way out that’s sometimes obscured. Dead players typically go to Limbo, which is part of how the world works. Unless someone really messes up or performs something extraordinary, they don’t die permanently. However, beating another group in combat, even if they don’t die, typically makes it possible for one group to achieve their objectives, such as capturing flags or dragon eggs, and can really mess up another camp – which actually allows for a good PvP action without griefing.

    I think Izgon had the hardest consequences of every larp I ever ran. “Hosts” could never really die as that was deemed non-immersive in a pervasive larp. Combat was brutal and messy, with huge consequences – the killers had their powers basically disabled for days. For the victims, it meant they were out for the larp, and perhaps even longer – e.g., one of the Hunters was Erased during Izgon 1. He was denied the opportunity to play a Hunter again in Izgon 2 because that made no sense for continuity, as everyone was playing the same hosts. One of the Melki players was Exiled in the first couple days of Izgon 2 – for the rest of the larp (10 days) he could only function as a host. It was very interesting to see how people adapted to the environment where both killing a character and getting killed had long-lasting consequences. The decisions were not taken lightly, but when they were taken the perpetrators felt they were worth it – because its’ effect on the other side was so powerful and permanent. Even if was so punishing to both sides that it flew right in the face of convential wisdom, I think it was quite revealing in how changing a larp’s approach to death can trigger different forms of behavior from the playerbase.

    But I don’t think there’s ever an ideal solution – the one that would make in-character murder simulating any sort of real risk, have meaningful game-changing consequences, work permanently and not take away from anyone’s fun. Only larps which have it “solved” are the ones that avoid the murder issue, by giving you goals which a murder won’t solve.

    • Fair Escape says:

      Keeping characters very closely balanced in combat abilities (or keeping players in the dark about their character’s combat skill relative to others) is definitely one way to try and reduce deadly combat. (This is one of the primary arguments in favor of introducing a random element into combat mechanics, by the way. Some people say “why not just always have a static number to compare? That’s always fast” and the response is often “because once someone is positive they the higher score, they will see no reason not to just kill anyone with a lower score in their way or possibly just walk around beating people up and taking their stuff.)

      I think there is an assumption in campaign LARPs (like boffer and Mind’s Eye Theater LARPs) that if there isn’t sufficient advancement, players will get frustrated and/or bored. Personally, I’d really like to try a campaign where there is very little advancement (particularly the sort that results in superior combat abilities.) Those where players advance significantly can feel very frustrating to newbies (and people who can’t spare the time and/or money to stay at cap.)

      I like the idea of Limbo a lot. The idea that death creates a challenge for us to either surpass or fall to is one that pops up from time to time in mythology.

      The system Izgon had for death of characters and the double layer of the LARP with the characters and the ARG-like game with the players was a unique experience for me. Also, I really like the idea of combat and killing having significant to massive penalties for the perpetrator, because that allows players the agency to make those decisions, but they won’t make them lightly. I’m kind of surprised I haven’t seen more of that in LARPs, but it came up in panels at either the last NELCO or Pre-Con, so maybe people will explore it more in this community.

      Yeah, there’s no perfect solution, but it’s good to experiment with different things to see which is best for different types of LARPs.

      • Ivan Žalac says:

        The Terra Nova larp that I run has very little advancement. On the other hand, I know a few campaigns around that have zero advancement. The Hungarian campaign Chronicles of Demgard for instance. They don’t have any sort of leveling, but their campaign is mostly story-related and it mostly plays as series of loosely-connected one-shots in different parts of the world. Most characters are played for one game only. From what I hear, the rest of the Hungarian larps also typically don’t provide leveling mechanics. It is similar with “The Elder Scrolls Chronicles” in Croatia. On the other hand, there’s VLARP in Serbia, which has been influenced by the Bulgarian larp trends. They also typically feature no leveling, and rarely kill player characters.

        Mechanical advancement, while it can be used to add a certain value to the long-term progression, can also become the sole reason of why people play. There’s a category of people who even won’t play anything else except that which gives them a certain score that brings with it a sense of achievement, even if they are themselves frustrated while achieving it, in a similar way as the “quick grind to max level” in MMORPGs, or beating your high score in Tetris or Flappy Bird. The numbers can be addictive and provide a sense of achievement.

        I find that XP economy can be fascinating. Depending on how XP is utilized, it can be a millstone around larp’s neck, a crutch, a needed boost, an additional value, a sign you’re doing good, or all of these at different points of time. A larp with XP system can use it as a crutch if the plot ends up badly – “at least you got some XP, we’ll make it better next time”. A campaign without any mechanical advancement can’t use that line, it HAS to rely on providing interesting content.

  3. All my theater games have an unknown resurrection mechanic, but it isn’t something that is published in the rules. The Serpent Spiral had a reincarnation point in the entrance of the maze that would be active while the underworld was open, so players would never be perm’d during game. There are similar localized effects in my other games as well, because dying early is not much fun and people get committed to even a four-hour character.

    What is interesting is that because these rules are not published, we have had some very emotional responses when characters do die. I have sometimes considered letting that cat out of the bag before game instead of keeping it a mystery. As someone who played The Serpent’s Spiral, would knowing the resurrection system was in place have had a good effect on your game? Curious to know.

  4. Matt Ward says:

    Initially while reading this it seemed kind of lame that players couldn’t die. Now however it makes sense. Like if you have ever played a long game of Risk or Monopoly and you get out first it is no fun having to sit out and not take part in the action.

    I myself am not very involved in LARP yet. I actually just learned about it while writing for my Middle Ages site http://arthursarmory.com but think it sounds pretty cool and want to get more involved. Any advice for a noob who likes medieval history? Cheers.

    • Fair Escape says:

      In theater LARPs, I find that that so long as players are allowed to kill in the last hour or half hour or so, the tension and danger are still there. No one is thinking “I could die any minute” until the moratorium is over, but people could still be thinking, “I may have only a few hours left to live if I can’t solve my problem.”

      In boffer LARPs, I agree, knowing one either can’t die or is highly unlikely to die does sometimes drain out the tension. (Many LARPs try to walk the line by making death rare or impossible, but not telling the players, so the players still think they can die…. with variable success.) I think its just often considered the lesser of two evils — there’s less tension, but also fewer unhappy players losing their beloved characters. The staff has to find other ways to threaten PCs — with permanent curses, but threatening loved ones, etc.

      Regarding joining LARPs — medieval fantasy is probably the most popular genre, but if you’re less interested in fantasy and more interested in (relatively) historically accurate stuff, that does narrow your choices a bit. According to your website, you’re based in GA, yes? The only LARP I know of in the area is Avegost, but I understand they’re very big on keeping things very historical looking (though it has elves) so it might be worth checking out.

      I think your best bet is joining a few social media groups — Facebook has a bunch of LARPing groups — asking about events in your area. (There’s also the LARP forum on rpg.net). Especially ones that are free to newbies, or have one-day events in addition to weekend long events. You can also often NPC for free, so that’s a good way to find out what a LARP is all about before deciding which to play. (It’s also easier to start with NPCing because a LARP staff often provides their NPCs with gear and costuming.) Some LARPs also host practice days, where people get together in the park to spar, and that can be a cool way to get to know the rules and mechanics.

      I don’t know how much theater LARP there is in GA, but if you are able to travel, New England has tons of theater stuff going on all year round, and a lot of it is free. (Plus we have an all-LARP convention up here.) If you attend geek conventions, a lot of those have LARPs in their programming to try out for a few hours. Also, I assume you’ve heard of the SCA, but just in case you haven’t, the Society for Creative Anachronism might be right up your alley. It’s not LARPing, but a lot of what they do is similar, with a heavier emphasis on history, and they have chapters all over the country.

      Like you, I’m a huge fan of Robin Hood and Braveheart, so I hope you find a LARP that you like! (Also, if you ever want to advertise to a crowd of LARPers, shoot me an email. I organize the raffle for Intecon, the all LARPing convention, and we offer ad space in our con booklet for people who donate to our raffle.) I hope this helps, and feel free to ask any more questions you might have!

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