NPC Bait

A discussion that pops up from time to time among LARP staffs, especially ones of the boffer campaign variety, is how to attract and keep NPCs. NPCs are often a limited (and therefore highly valued) resource for LARPs, and their numbers can have a huge impact on enabling or limiting what kind of content one can run for their PCs.

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Just a humble NPC farmer passing through at Madrigal 3

Before I start listing the things that compel me to NPC for a LARP and then return for more, I want to make clear that this isn’t a list of demands or expectations. I think creating and running a LARP seems like such a monumental task that creates such an enormous drain on so many types of drainable resource  (time, money, talent, emotional fortitude, social capital) that frankly, it often seems miraculous to me.

Rather, this is just a collection of things I’ve enjoyed or desired while NPCing. Food for thought. And as the vast majority of NPCing I’ve done has been for Accelerant boffer campaigns, and this will mostly reflect that. (For a little context for those unfamiliar, this community generally has people playing NPCs for the whole weekend — rather than, say, instead of having NPC shifts for PCs — and while some people NPC every event, often people will NPC for only a few events, or even just one. If stuff in this post doesn’t seem applicable to your format of NPCing, that’s ok! There’s no One True Way.)

Logistics. It kind of goes without saying that this is going to be a huge and limiting factor for everyone. Getting to and from sites is really rough on people without their own cars. Most campsites aren’t public transportation accessible, and even if they are, the amount of luggage needed to NPC (which often includes suitcases, LARP weapons, and sleeping bags) is often not feasible on the bus. If you don’t have anyone able to offer rides, that’s entirely understandable. But if you do, you might want to make it known what are the appropriate channels to reach out and ask for transportation options. I’m often shy and hesitant to ask for help, especially if I have no idea if anyone from the LARP lives in my area — am I bothering the head of staff if I ask for help finding a ride? Am I spamming if I email the whole staff or post on a player forum? Some LARPs offer incentives to PCs for providing rides (CP maybe?) which I think is a great idea.

(As a side note to NPCs accepting rides — don’t forget to thank your driver and offer to chip in for gas if you can.)

LARPs differ a great deal on what they can provide in terms of room and board, and this information should ideally be easy to find upfront. Some NPCs want to know before they end up on your email list or chat groups, so it’s helpful to have it available on your website, and not just sent out in individual emails. How how many meals and/or what snacks are provided, if any? Do NPCs sleep in cabins, in one building together, or some combination, and how many to a room? Can they pick their roommates in advance? Does the site allow tents? What are the accommodations like? Can I bring electronics that plug in, can I store my food in a fridge? Is there heating, AC, indoor plumbing? If this changes event to event and you don’t know the answers until, say, a week out from the event, that’s ok, just say so on the website along with how to get information.(eg “we may not have catering at every event. We try to get the menu emailed out the Sunday before an event to our mailing list.”) A suggested packing list on the website (and minimal costuming expectations) is also nice to see.

Obviously it’s great if you can provide meals and snacks for NPCs so that’s one less major thing they have to worry about prepping and packing, but if not, you don’t want NPCs to have to scramble and poke staff to find the information, or worse, accidentally come unprepared. (Electricity, climate control, and indoor plumbing also tend to make packing and preparing an easier process.)

Personally, I’m a huge fan of Monster Camps that provide sports drinks, caffeinated beverages (especially hot coffee on cold mornings and iced coffee on hot mornings!) and healthy snacks like veggie platters. (Providing chemical hand warmers for cold weather is also a good idea.)

Comfortable Monster Camps. I know this is something most staffs can’t be picky about and they just get the site that works for them in terms of location, size, and price, but all other things being equal, a Monster Camp that isn’t too cramped, has comfortable furniture and room for NPCs to relax between modules will retain more NPCs. Electricity, a fridge, temperature control are also all major selling points. Some camps have pretty unclean furniture and/or weird smells, which can turn NPCs off. (It also might cause them to hang out in their tents or cabins, which can make wrangling them for modules involve a bit more effort.)

This dovetails with Monster Camp hygiene. Bathrooms in the same building are always nice, especially since NPCs tend to get sweaty while fighting PCs and often have lots of makeup to wash off. Keeping the makeup counter clean (and having methods to clean makeup applicators) and well stocked with makeup wipes is appreciated. Reminding NPCs to wipe off masks after use is great (plastic and rubber masks can really trap sweat and condensation.) It’s really tough to remember to wash costuming between (or even during!) events and find someone willing to take that job on (especially if costuming tends to get shoved into the back of storage units between events) but NPC costuming often gets sweaty and dirty and just… unpleasant. Bonus points for sites that have washing machines and LARP staffs that make use of them during the game.

General In-game Information. I find surprisingly few LARPs do this, but it really helps my NPCing experience to feel sufficiently well informed before an event. Having a concise summary of the setting (maybe in bullet point format?) that NPCs have access to before an event is really appreciated. I’ve had access to giant wikis that contained way too much information to absorb, especially in limited time (and also access to zero information in advance), but giving NPCs the basics of the setting and an overview of the relevant setting information and plotlines for that particular event would be really appreciated. NPCs often dislike going into situations where PCs may try to ask questions they don’t know the answer to. (I’ve walked into LARPs and realized half-way into my first NPC role I didn’t know the name of the local town or why the PCs were there.)

Specific In-Game Information. The earlier write-ups for specific NPC roles go out, the better (especially if you’re hoping the NPC will provide their own costuming.) And while brevity is great (especially if they don’t get out so early) I wouldn’t complain about excess details that are specific to the face roles (roles who engage in a lot of RP with PCs) which helps me keep conversations rolling. (And will cover a wider range of possibilities for PCs who get into unexpected topics.) A detailed write-up along with an abbreviated version that highlights the most important facts is ideal. I’ve also really appreciated when the staff hands me a bit of information about the characters who are likely to approach me and how to identify them. (Bonus points for actual photos.)

I find this kind of thing can even be useful for crunchy sorts of monsters who don’t talk to PCs. Knowing what kinds pf crunchies will be going out during the weekend is particularly useful to players who might not want to use face paint, but can supplement with a mask or other costuming, with advance warning. And during the event, having stuff available in writing (bonus points for multiple copies so multiple NPCs can reference the materials at once) so that if you miss what a staff is saying or want to review it before a module begins is great. For crunchies, one or two sentence descriptions of behavior and mechanical information, as well as module structure (how often do they respawn? When do they stop attacking? etc.) is useful. A general idea of how the staff is hoping/expecting a module to go is also a good idea. (Eg how pressed do you want the PCs to feel? How likely to succeed? How long would the module ideally last? Do you want a long sustained fight, or short bursts of action? Are the NPCs “death strike active”? etc.)

Out of Game/Mechanical Information. One of the great benefits of the Accelerant LARPs is that you know the basic rules no matter which game you’re playing, but some Accelerant LARPs have their own individual rules outside of the standard ones, and NPCs should have access to a summary of those changes. This can be glossed over thanks to “Clarify?” but it’s even better if it’s not necessary. This also goes for non-standard indications for things like PCs who are non-combat, or off-limits locations to re-spawn from. And of course, some of your NPCs may be brand new or relatively new, and an abbreviated copy of the rules, with emphasis on the most common calls, available to review prior to the LARP online and during the LARP in Monster Camp, is a good idea.

Roles available. This probably goes without saying, but having a wide variety of roles available and being permissive with what NPCs play, even if they’re not committing to future events, is likely to result in a happy NPC returning. Some NPCs only want roleplay/face roles, some only want to crunch, some need a solid mix, some want specific roles in combat (like only ranged, only healing, “lieutenants” — ie special bad guys more dangerous than the average mook, or even the Big Bad themselves.)

I want to give a shout-out to Madrigal here. At one event I NPCed, they had a box full of one-off roles to go out. They were all ghosts who needed something in order to pass on. Some were pure RP (“get three PCs to toast to their fallen loved ones with you”) and some were puzzle based (“find someone who can answer your three riddles”) and some were combat based  (“find a PC who can beat you in one-on-one honorable combat”), and they could go out at any time, whenever an NPC wanted to. Each ghost had its own little packet with a description and any possible props they might need. I think it was brilliant and would love to see more LARPs create NPC content inspired by this idea.

Additionally, support for Monster Camp tasks can be a plus for some NPCs, whether it’s general instructions on the wall (how to organize costuming and props bins that got messy, where to find batteries to replace the ones in lights, where to find cleaning supplies, etc.) or having a staff member designated as someone who can delegate these tasks. Sometimes NPCs don’t want to go out to interact with PCs, but they still want to feel useful and not like they’re just sitting around.

Some LARPs have a system for creating a “townie” role — a role an NPC gets to customize for themselves that they can use when they hang out with PCs during meals or downtime, or even have minor plotlines that directly involve the townie role, which is a really nice bonus.

Scheduling. A Monster Camp that has a schedule and sticks to it is huge — it’s really nice to know when I can take time off for a nap or a meal because I’m not scheduled for anything for an hour. (Or that it’s safe to go to bed because there’s nothing left that evening.) I also love being able to tell staff about my scheduled preferences and have it taken into account. Personally, I’m a night owl and I’m happy to stay up to the wee hours if I know there’s something specific going on, but I prefer to avoid being scheduled for anything in the early morning, and I’m more likely to NPC for a LARP that is willing to try and accommodate that. (Special shout out to Shadows of Amun for their scheduling skills here.)

Personal requests. This comes up a lot in NPC discussions; being personally asked to play a particular role is pretty flattering and lots of NPCs will specifically show up to a LARP if contacted about a specific role for them. NPCs who can’t commit to a whole weekend will also often make time to show up for a portion of the event to play a particular role. Which reminds me…

Make allowances for NPCs to attend for part of the weekend. This can be as simple as offering instructions for people parking mid-event and offering partial CP, and in my experience, you’re more likely to get more people who wouldn’t otherwise attend at all than people who might have stayed the whole weekend but stayed for less time because it was a supported option.

Encourage (positive) PC Feedback. Lots of staffs have figured out that encouraging their PCs to express appreciation for NPCs, and reference specific characters and specific moments. I’d like to add a note about trying to mention the NPCs who spend the whole weekend crunching if possible. Crunching can be hard, tiring work, and as it’s not a roleplay role, NPCs who only crunch often don’t get recognized by PCs. PCs — if you can remember a moment where an NPC made combat particularly fun, either by how they acted out their role, or how they used their skills, thank them in your PEL! (Post Event Letter — a common feedback form for Accelerant LARPs.)

Some LARPs have a Three on One rule/guideline., meaning PCs are discouraged from having more than three melee attackers attacking a given NPC at once. NPCs are often heavily outnumbered by PCs in combat, and lots of NPCs find getting repeatedly swarmed simply not fun. I much prefer combat as an NPC if I feel like I can actually pose a threat to PCs instead of just getting immediately taken down by hits from all directions at once. (Otherwise you spend most of combat just walking back and forth from the fight to the spawning points.)

I know it’s tough when the ratio is heavily skewed, and I know this can often lead to some PCs just not getting to fight. I dislike swarming an NPC almost as much as I dislike being swarmed as an NPC, and there have been many a battle where I simply stood there because there weren’t any NPCs not being engaged by three or more PCs already. (This can really drain immersion for me.) It’s not uncommon for LARPs to have a subset of PCs who are aggressive and will always take the front lines and actively engage with NPCs, preventing those who don’t want to swarm NPCs from getting to fight.

I don’t really have a great solution for this other than for a staff to try and be aware of it. Providing NPCs with mechanics (like Repels and Disengages, but really any mechanic that will temporarily disable some PCs) to delay the most aggressive PCs can really help the flow of combat. (In my opinion, every Accelerant LARP should have a blanket rule that NPCs can have as many Disengages as they want, not to use to gain advantage against PCs, but to reduce the swarming effect of too many PCs, and to get out of bottlenecks at doors and tight bunches in corners. Bottlenecks and getting cornered often make a low NPC to PC ratio that much worse, and the fight is that much less fun for both sides.)

Another shout out to Madrigal, which has a totally optional system for PCs to take temporary NPC shifts, to help adjust the NPC-PC ratio.

Similarly, be aware of your most aggressive PC fighters. Some LARPs develop reputations for having groups of PCs who consistently swing too hard, and this will turn some NPCs off, especially from melee combat roles. It’s something to keep an eye out for even if you aren’t receiving official complaints — some NPCs are too worried about being labeled as fragile and overly sensitive to register complaints. Sending out (and taking to heart) NPC PELs can help with these kinds of issues (and a number of the ones listed above.)

This is all stuff a LARP staff can address, but PCs can help in a number of ways. (And I know as a PC, I love to see a large NPC base for the staff to draw from!) Besides putting effort to thank NPCs in your PELs (be specific about people and things they did they like, and again, don’t forget the crunchies!), I think the main thing PCs can do is to be kind and patient with NPCs, including but not limited to newbies. I’ve seen a few out-of-game arguments over rules or aggressive combat escalate on the battle field, and it leads to bad feelings all around. Some LARPs publicize strategies for handling on the field disagreements (such as just rolling with the mistake, unless it would result in something like a character death) but if you really feel something must be said in the moment, using a friendly tone is a huge improvement over trying to correct someone with an angry or accusatory tone.) And of course, don’t forget that you can be a recruiter for NPCs, not just the staff members. (maybe even suggest to a staff you’d like to see someone play a particular role from your background?)

So how about you? What encourages you to NPC for a LARP, and what gets you to come back for more?

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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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One Response to NPC Bait

  1. robotisred says:

    I love the idea of having pictures of PCs so that NPCs know who to hook for specific mods. I sometimes only know people by their character names from other LARPs, plus I’m horrible with names anyway, so pictures would solve that problem very well.

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