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.