Lessons From Cry Havoc

As I mentioned in a recent post, at Festival of the LARPs 2017, I ran a boffer game designed to introduce newbies to the Accelerant system. I was inspired by a LARP I played twice at SLAW called The Trouble With Turnips, which is designed introduce newbies to the Realms boffer system. (Please excuse the repetition if you have read the related posts recently.)

The structure of The Trouble With Turnips is pretty simple, and probably familiar to anyone who has played through any classic tabletop RPG dungeon crawls. The PCs play a group of adventurers who were summoned to deal with the evil Turnipmancer, who has been ransacking farms and creating monsters that have been ravaging the country side. The adventurers enter the Turnipmancer’s lair, bypass a series of traps, fight a series of monsters (all with root vegetable themes), and solve a series of puzzles in order to earn the keys to unlock a chest containing the weapon that can defeat the Turnipmancer once and for all. (There is also a friendly NPC who gets turned into a turnip-head monster and requires rescuing.)

There was a lot I loved about this structure as an introductory boffer LARP. The familiarity and simplicity of the structure of the story — Bad Guy’s lair is full of traps and puzzles and monsters, good guys need to find and unlock the MacGuffin to defeat him — made it easy for me to focus on learning and practicing the rules of combat. The comical nature of the scenario, the frequent puns, and the over-the-top cacklingly evil portrayal of the Turnipmancer all made me feel a lot less self-conscious about being a total newbie and making a lot of mistakes while I was learning. The traps and puzzles all allow for endless attempts, NPC monsters are low-powered, and the NPC healer aiding the PCs has endless healing, making PC death and failure to defeat the Turnipmancer highly unlikely, highly unlikely (if not impossible). All of this also keeps the event low-pressure and enables the players to focus on the activity they like best, whether it’s combat or puzzle solving. Even players who lack any natural athletic abilities or might struggle with riddles can feel like they’re contributing.

The game also seemed relatively easy to set-up and run; a bunch of the props are actual root vegetables (which I hear traditionally make it into a stew after a run.) Other props are simple things like cardboard puzzles and plastic spoons. I think the low production values actually really suit the comedy of the game and the low-pressure atmosphere, and make the game feel very welcoming and accessible to players who want to try out Realms LARPing without having to create a lot of costuming and/or boffer gear, or worry about whether their “newbie-ness” might drag down the game.  (Another way Turnips is very welcoming to newbies: the GMs bring buckets of generic fantasy costuming to loan out to players along with boffer weapons.)

The only thing I sort of disliked about Trouble With Turnips was that the players aren’t given pre-written characters. (Nor is there any workshop for players to create them.) The players all play more or less identical generic adventurers. Players are welcome to come up with a name (or whatever other elements of a character) if they like, but this is all done at the door, in a rush with no guidance, and it doesn’t have the ability to affect game play in any official way.

Also, the newbies are all given bare bones skill sets (simply the ability to wield a single weapon). A few regular Realms players came in with other abilities, other weapons and shields, and the only healer was an NPC. This all has huge advantages — it’s that much easier to run on the staff and it’s a flexible structure which means that last minute player additions or drops are no problem, but I personally would have liked to try it with a character background and personality to inspire roleplay, and skill sets that allow the players to try out more of the mechanics besides melee combat in its simplest form.

For Cry Havoc, I took the basic premise, then tweaked it a bit, to suit the different time and space available (at SLAW, Turnips had a whole evening in multiple rooms, whereas at Festival, Cry Havoc had one giant room for less time) to provide a bit more roleplay fodder in the form of pre-written character sheets, and to allow the players to play a bit more with the options the Accelerant system provides.

The basic premise of my scenario was as follows: Santa Claus has turned evil and is taking over the other holidays. The PCs are a collection of mascots from other holidays (I let the players choose what mascots they wanted to play, either ones from popular culture, ones they made up, or ones I made up for them) who have traveled to Santa’s lair to uncover his weakness, defeat his three lieutenants (other holiday mascots) and their minions, then summon and defeat Santa once and for all.

The lieutenants have a predesignated order in which they arrive through the Seasons Portal (Easter for Spring, then Independence Day for Summer, then Halloween for fall), but  if the PCs can collect enough tokens, they can alter the order in which the lieutenants arrive. (Various aspects of the fight are easier if they’re rearranged to summer, fall, then spring.) Tokens can be earned by taking them off fallen foes or solving the various puzzles (which included lock-picking) scattered around the room. The Easter Bunny, also an additional plot and challenge: they’ve become a lich and the players must find their Easter eggs and collect them into an Easter basket to purify them.

And as mentioned in a previous post, I do think the players had fun, which is of course the most important thing, but the run was pretty chaotic, so it’s difficult to assess how much of the mechanics of the scenario (things like how to operate the Seasons Portal and how to safely move Easter eggs) and the actual Accelerant rules, were actually successfully conveyed to the players, and how much of the non-combat stuff successfully entertained the players.

Before I delve into the specifics of the improvements I’d like to try, I do think I should mention the  various aspects of Cry Havoc that were successful and make me want to run it again in the future.

I think the theme and visuals worked out very well. I chose holidays both because it seemed lighthearted and because I knew it would be easy to find, produce, and borrow props and set dressing that suited the theme. (Dollar stores also often have holiday themed stuff.) Christmas gift bags, for example, made nice containers for puzzles and loot. NPCs could easily dress up like a hoard of Christmas elves with mundane red and green items. (I think I actually overdid it with the set dressing; even though, miraculously, thanks to the amazing NPCs, we did get it all set up and taken down in a rather timely manner, I would probably cut way back in the future. And sadly, I did not get any photos.) The familiarity of the theme also meant there was a minimum of writing and reading needed to convey the setting; everyone already knows who Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are.

I also think the PCs also felt able to costume easily with this theme. Because they were essentially able to pick their characters and the character concepts were heavily open to interpretation, PCs who wanted to create extensive costuming (or wear costuming they already owned) could. (One player created a really adorable Halloween spider costume), but those who just wanted to pull something from their closet were also able to. (The NPCs did the same — a few owned some fun patriotic stuff, which is why there were a lot of bad guys to fight from Independence Day.)

It also wasn’t too hard to tweak puzzles and riddles and some of the loot to suit the theme. For example, one puzzle involved drawing lines correctly between circles on a page (Bridges puzzles) which easily became drawing tinsel between Christmas ornaments. The moving-turnips-on-spoons challenge became moving Easter eggs on spoons with a purchase from the Dollar Store.

I also think assigning characters to the players, rather than letting them all show up as random adventurers, worked out. The characters were pretty simple, a few had some RP ties to connect them, and there was redundancy in most of the holidays and themes, so the game was able to handle last minute drops. I think it’s also helped contribute to the excitement.

I think a lot of the puzzles and physical challenges were ones I’d like to reuse — I think many of the puzzles weren’t attempted, and a number that were attempted never got solved, but I think that was mostly because of the chaos and combat going on simultaneously… But if I ran the LARP again, I’d probably still use things like Bridges, Loops, Shikaku, and Dominosa. (This website allows you to easily pick the size and difficulty of the puzzles.) I also tailor made two logic puzzles; one involved figuring out which unlabeled bottle contained which potion, and the other, which order to put different colored candles in a menorah. (Solving it unlocked a special ability, “Eight Damage by Dedication”.)  Even though the latter went unsolved (and was accidentally printed with the solution,) I would love to use them again.

I think there were two major factors that contributed to the problematic chaos of the run. The first was that the Groundhog’s Shadow, the friendly, helpful NPC designed to explain mechanics like the Seasons Portal and be available to answer questions, clarify things, and offer hints and tips as needed, was meant to be summoned as soon as the PCs entered the room. But there were so many distracting things to interact with right away, only one player ended up trying to summon the Shadow, and it took them a fair amount of time while working alone. There was clearly a lot of confusion about how various things worked (particularly the Easter eggs), and it took much longer for the helpful NPC to be summoned, so there wasn’t an easy, in-game fix readily available to address the confusion. I won’t go too far into details about how I tried to prevent this before the LARP and the various kludged efforts I made after the LARP began, but I will say that if there is a next time, the NPC will be present before the PCs walk into the room.

The other issue is that everything interactive was always in one room at the same time: the combat, the puzzles that require concentration and/or pencils and paper to solve, the movable terrain, the Easter egg balancing challenge. In Turnips, the balancing challenge was a room by itself with nothing else in it, and most of the puzzles were in a single area with combat only happening around the outskirts, at the entrances and in the hallways.

When LARPs have only a single room to use, one can divide it into smaller spaces (if there are enough space dividers, furniture, and/or large set pieces) though this typically feels less “official” and may result in a lot more flow back and forth between the spaces than one might have with permanent walls. (It’s also hard to create doors that actually block movement.) A common method of “dividing” up a single space is to run an “elevator module” — basically, a vestibule or area just outside of the door in the hallway, or a temporary space created by room dividers, is set aside for the players to be in between scenes. It often represents a vehicle that is on the move, or, as the name implies, elevator taking the PCs from floor to floor. While the PCs are in this space, the NPCs move around set dressing, furniture, and props to represent new rooms. This method is pretty popular in the one-shot boffer LARPs run at Intercon. (Stop That Moon, Rabbit Run, and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, to name a few, used this method.)

The upside of this method is that one can use the entire room multiple times over to effectively have as many rooms as a LARP might require. The downside is that it can be pretty time and labor intensive, as it requires staff to quickly re-set the stage over and over while players wait in a small area. To deal with the enforced downtime, I’ve seen some LARPs include interactive elements to the “elevator” — videos to watch, puzzles to solve, fodder for inter-PC roleplay. (And water and even snacks while PCs catch their breath.) Elevator mods also only allow a single room to be available at a time and generally strongly support a very linear LARP, which can be both an advantage or a drawback, depending on the desired design of a LARP.

I decided not to use the elevator mod format because the room was very large to begin with, so it didn’t seem necessary to functionally expand the space, and we were rather tight on time, so I didn’t want to have to budget a bunch of downtime for re-staging the set. I also figured the players were mostly new and might not know what elements of the LARP they might find most enjoyable, and I didn’t want to risk there being long scenes where the focus was on a single element that some players might not find interesting.

In retrospect, I think this was a mistake and ensuring players always had access to a variety of elements so that they could always focus on whatever interested them most was not really worth the confusion and chaos. I think players felt like they couldn’t quite focus on the Easter eggs balancing or the puzzles with combat always happening all around. (Veteran players might have put puzzle solvers into a defensible position and put the melee fighters, especially shields, between people focusing on puzzles and the monsters, but that’s an instinct that takes a bit of time to develop.)

There were some other minor fail points that caused issues — some of the puzzles didn’t get their instructions printed (printer failure during prep), and some of the locks (even though they were the kind that is the easiest to pick and were tested before the LARP) simply wouldn’t open. But a more notable issue was that I never heard the players make a single call, either for attack or defense, during the LARP, which made me think the LARP didn’t really properly introduce the style to newbies.

If I were to run this LARP again, here are some of the changes and improvements I’d like to make:

One, depending on the time and space available, I’ll either divide up the room into distinct spaces and only allow the players access to one at at time. Or, alternatively, if there’s tons of time, I’ll run it as an elevator mod.

Two, as mentioned, the PCs will start out with the helpful NPC. (I would probably reuse the concept of the Groundhog’s Shadow — since shadows can change size and shape, and the mask was a solid blank black hood, any NPC who was available at any given moment could play the part.) But PCs will either begin game with the shadow, or will summon the shadow (without having to take time to solve anything) before encountering any other part of the LARP.

IMG_20170623_162453650-2

Gonna be six more weeks of winter…

Three, begin printing much earlier, so that if there is printer failure, another one can be found before the LARP. (This is a pretty plan for running any LARP event.)

Four, simplify the mechanics available to the PCs, and have smaller, one on one fights (and demonstrations of other mechanics), at the beginning of the LARP so they can ease into it and try things out before larger group combat begins. It probably couldn’t hurt to have an even longer tutorial before the LARP begins, as well.

Five, telegraph more to the NPCs in advance. I didn’t want to overwhelm the NPCs with tons of information before the LARP, especially since they were all experienced players and I wanted them to feel empowered to adjust things like their stats and how often they respawned on the fly, according to how busy/pressed the players were at any given moment. But I think when things like the Easter egg mechanic got confused, this might have been too hard to adjust for on the fly without fuller understanding of the mechanic in advance.

I do think that a formula for creating and running a basic, dungeon-crawl style game can be extracted from what I learned by playing Trouble With Turnips and running Cry Havoc. I occasionally see people posting in online LARP forums, saying there are no boffer LARPs in their area but they’d like to run something for their friends, how can they do it? And I think this formula might be one valid answer to that. That is likely going to be its own post in the near future.

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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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2 Responses to Lessons From Cry Havoc

  1. Tara Halwes says:

    Having a structure/schedule printed out and posted in Monster Camp might also be helpful, and/or someone who knows what is supposed to happen when and how but who is not also occupied as the Helpful NPC, since part of the chaos came from NPCs not knowing when effects had started or ended because of noise and distance and missed cues. E.g. If someone is responsible for watching for a cue, they can shout out an Inflict to Spirit to signal a change and also help redirect NPCs.

    • Fair Escape says:

      Good points. Using sound cues that could come from anywhere in the room would not have been a good idea even if I had successfully conveyed the mechanics of the eggs. Turnips just did it better, having the turnips/eggs challenge be it’s own separate thing in its own separate room. I assumed a 1 1/2 hour event didn’t need a printed schedule/structure, but I’ve definitely changed my mind about that. 🙂

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