My second panel of NELCO 2016 was “Information Flow in Boffer LARPs“, for which I acted as moderator. This was one of the topics I suggested. (In fact, I had just played a boffer LARP prior to one of the calls for topic suggestions, and a number of the topics ended up inspired by my experiences.)
All of the boffer campaigns I’ve participated in as either a PC or an NPC, have run into challenges with information flow at one point or another. There were a few forms of information flow in particular that I was hoping the panel would cover.
One was information flow during battle. Two prime examples were in my mind when I suggested this topic (though certainly my experiences in boffer battles are littered with others). One was a late night on Saturday battle at the last Fifth Gate: Silverfire event, in which the PCs ended up in the dreaded”hedgehog” formation — tangled up in a tightly clustered ball, fighting NPCs on all sides. We had no idea how much progress we were making, if any, throughout, and wound up staying on the field much longer than we had to instead of retreating at the earliest possibility, which cost us a high number of casualties. The second was also a Saturday late night (technically, an early Sunday morning) fight at Cottington Woods in the Slumberlands, a long, incredibly difficult slog with multiple steps, and I recall never knowing how far along we were or how much longer it might be, no matter whom I asked, PC or NPC.
The other form of information flow was that of facts about the environment and current events from the staff to the players both on a large scale and a small, more immediate scale. How do you ensure information generally gets through to the players and passes from one to another and reaches everyone who needs to know or everyone who might want to know? And how do you make sure when you have information relevant in the immediate sense (such as the circumstances and specific mechanics of a battle the PCs are about to march into) that it reaches everyone quickly and is promptly understood?
We talked about some of the common techniques used by local LARPs (mostly Accelerant) to convey information during a battle. Visual cues are one of the most common — often, lights are turned on or off to indicate something has changed on the battlefield. For example, if there is a ward up between the PCs and their objective, it will be represented by rope lights, which will be turned off when the PCs manage to bring the wards down. Or lights will be strung around a doorway, and someone will turn them on to indicate a portal is now open for PCs to go through. Glowing lights in dark encounters in particular work well for conveying information in that generally, all players can see it at once, and lights suddenly going on or off is hard to miss. (Other cues with similar advantages include things like turning on or off a fog machine, or turning on or off loud sound effects.)
One of the most common difficulties with using this kind of cue is how often electronics can fail. Especially with rope lights laid out on the ground, players trip over extension cords and things come unplugged. Of course, the electricity can go out and electronics can simply break. It’s nice when something visually bright goes on or off at the appropriate moment, but LARPs generally need something as a backup cue when they fail, and an NPC to monitor the situation and make sure PCs don’t misinterpret things going wrong.
Rope lights are popular for two obvious reasons — they’re flexible, so they can be arranged in various ways according to the needs of various scenarios, and they’re cheap and easy to find. Understandable, but we did offer kudos for the lighting props that avoid the unplugging and breaking problems. the final battle of Lost Eidolons, where the visual cues were large glowing pillars with bright lamps on top that didn’t need to be plugged in, and they never accidentally went off in the middle of battle.
Of course, this also requires playing knowing what the various visual cues mean. Rope lights laid out across the floor or around a doorway are fairly intuitive and so commonly used, that generally it’s not a problem if a player misses the briefing in which they’re told “when the magic ward stops glowing, you can cross”. But other cues, such as a fog machine turning on, aren’t necessarily clear, in which case players still need to be briefed before the encounter or have a means of finding out during the battle, such as text props and/or tags.
Speaking of text props and tags, besides putting them somewhere players can’t miss (eye level is a good idea, or covering a doorknob so that they cannot enter without encountering the text and using bold colors, it’s a good idea to use large, bold print, so that more than the one person standing directly in front of them can read the text at a time. (I’ve noticed many LARPs print such things in standard 12 pt fonts, which is usually too small for text being read during combat scenes by groups of people.)
But even if players aren’t fully clear on the meaning of cues like fog or sound effects, they can be very useful in letting players know that things are progressing. (Or, alternatively, it might mean the situation is deteriorating.) This is important, because having no indication that anything is changing can be demoralizing for players, and that can suck the fun out of encounters. It’s very difficult, if not impossible to make meaningful decisions instead of blind guesses on things like when to press the advance, when to hold the line, when to take risks and make sacrifices, if/when to sound the retreat, and when to spend resources and use abilities, if you have no idea how or if the battle is progressing.
For example, in one of the aforementioned battles, part of what made them a struggle for players (rather than being solely a struggle for the characters and more of an enjoyable challenge for the players) was that we didn’t know whether or not we had accomplished anything, how far along we were, and how much longer it might be. In the Fifth Gate battle, we were told it would take about 45 minutes to enable some innocent villagers to slip away and escape, but the villagers weren’t visible from the battlefield, and no one on the PC side had any method of telling time, which was why we stayed out on the field longer than we needed to, and many characters wound up losing their lives. (If you have a long timed effect, it might be good to either provide players with something to keep the time — like a large hour glass, or an NPC on their side who can covertly check their watch .)
Other cues can be mechanical or situational. In Accelerant, it’s common to use the Inflict or Imbue call (examples of calls you might hear are, “By My Voice, Inflict to Undead” or “By My Voice, Imbue By Light”) to indicate something is happening. Inflict calls against the enemies are a common cue to indicate the monsters should leave the field because the PCs have achieved victory, but they can also be used to indicate changes in the middle of the battle. The downside is the limit of the human voice, especially in the chaos of battle — people can miss or mishear the call, and it’s not always clear what the call means if it isn’t immediately followed by an obvious occurrence.
More subtle, indirect ways to use mechanics might be to switch up the abilities the enemies have. For example, if the PCs’ progress causes the enemies to increase in power as they get closer to victory, each time the NPCs spawn, they might receive an additional point of damage, or a new ability to Repel or Maim the PCs. This kind of cue might not work well, though, because it’s common for a LARP staff member to adjust NPC stats on the fly during combat if they meant for the battle to be much easier, or much harder, or didn’t realize the PCs had a certain resource to expend and mitigate the threat, or the ratio of PCs or NPCs is not what they expected. PCs might assume there are practical, out-of-game reasons for monsters having different abilities mid-fight. Even if your LARP has never done it, it’s part of the local community’s culture.
A better way to approach this method might be to use abilities that are very rare in your LARP/the local LARPs (such as Slam or Silence for the local community), or change up the flavor of the abilities. In Accelerant, we use attack traits to indicate the flavor of an attack (such as a the phrase “by Fire” in a call, “Five Damage by Fire”.) Having a mob of enemies go from calling “2 damage” to “5 damage by Hellfire” might alert the players to the fact that the portal to Hell has been opened. (This can also be paired with costume changes — such as leaving a pile of tabards in a new color and/or headbands with horns at the respawn point.)
But it’s important to realize that this method of conveying information to the players reaches players unevenly. Front line fighters tend to find out first, and then it reaches the ranged attackers and healers (and any other battle roles your LARP has.) And similarly, your NPCs might not all get the message to switch simultaneously — you’ll need a way to make sure they’re alerted to it so that your monsters aren’t sending your PCs mixed messages. (Having someone or something they can consult at their respawn points is an option.)
On the subject of general information flow about the environment (outside of combat), we discussed the various ways staff introduces new information to PCs and common problems that prevent information from flowing, such as misunderstandings, a lack of access to information, or players actively keeping information from one another.
Between Event Skills, or BES, are common in the local community. Not many games allow players to take significant actions between events, but many provide a number of ways players can gain information, such as through research, writing letters to NPCs, or supernatural means like prophetic dreams or praying to deities for answers. Responses are sometimes emailed out in advance, sometimes handed out at the start of game. (If they’re emailed out in advance, it’s not a bad idea to also hand out hard copies for players to reference at game start, since players are prone to forgetting the content and not printing out their own copy. But if a staff does not want to print out BESs at game, perhaps to save on paper and ink and time, informing players they shouldn’t expect a hard copy is a good idea, so that they know to print their own if they want one.)
When it comes to introducing information through BESs (or other methods), one might to use giving individual players information that no one else as a means of making players feel important, but that creates a bottleneck for the information flow, and a single player who forgets information, or hoards it, can prevent the rest of the PC population from finding out. Providing redundant avenues avoids this issue. Even better, providing multiple PCs with some of the same information about a single topic, with a few additional bits that are unique to one or two players, encourages players to discuss the topics and pool information, which helps it spread. I recall when a group of PCs in one LARP consistently received the exact same text in response to their BESs, players quickly realized it and stopped gathering to discuss it. It saves the staff time on writing, but provided much less fodder for in-game discussions.
We also discussed using mechanical motivation for gathering and spreading information between players. Some games have skills that enable and encourage this. Invictus, for example, had a class of characters called Scribes, that had mechanics that enabled them to ignore attacks and negative effects, so long as they were taking notes, and the ability to grant protection and extra attacks to an audience if they teach other PCs what they learned.
In general, having as much in writing as possible in-game is a good idea. You can send in a herald to make announcements, but having him carry a notice that he can post on the wall of the tavern for players to view later, or carrying the letter he received when he first learned the information and is willing to share it, is even better — it ensures the information is available for people who aren’t present at the right moment, and enables them to get it first hand, to avoid the telephone problem (information getting altered or lost as it passes from person to person.)
Overall, it was a useful discussion; it probably could have been two separate panels (information flow during combat and general information flow in campaigns. A lot of it came up again in the panels on hooking modules and online RP.