Plotting For A One-Shot - LARP
This article has been written with the game-master of a one-shot game in mind. This can be an event at your local gaming convention, or perhaps it's a special event that you're running for members of the local gaming community. Either way, this is a game that begins and ends within a few hours - usually six to eight - not an ongoing campaign. Do not make the mistake of thinking that running a one-shot event is easier than the alternative. There are some specific pitfalls awaiting the overconfident GM who approaches the challenge of a one-shot event like it's some sort of picnic.
In addition to this article, I suggest you read LARP Pitfalls and Clawing Your Way Out of Them and Running a LARP At A Convention - Logistics and Sanity as they both get into the nitty-gritty of running live-action games.
Questions to Ask Yourself As You're Kicking Around Ideas For An Event
- Is the plot appealing? Will the plot appeal to a bunch of strangers who haven't gamed with you before? This might sound like a no-brainer, but you must be sure that you're creating something that other people will want to play in. Appealing factors include a compelling game-setting, an intriguing plot to solve, or an opportunity to do something new - like those Cthulhu Live maniacs on the east coast who play Delta Green with paint-guns...
- Similarly, are you secure with the notion of presenting your baby (the game, that is) to a bunch of strangers? One-shot LARPs often go off in unexpected directions and, allowing for that little bit of control-freak that exists inside every GM, you must be prepared to cope with this.
- Can all plots be resolved in the time allotted? Fours hours might seem like a lot of time, but sometimes it isn't...
- Can your plot be resolved with the minimum number of characters? Some times you'll be inundated with players, sometimes, you won't... Work out an 'absolute minimum' threshold, below which you will cancel the event.
Determining a game's appeal is quite simple. Gaming endures trends just like any other subculture. Some games wane in popularity, and others endure. Things like Star Wars and Vampire: The Masquerade always have appeal to LARPers. But some trends come and go, so time your plans accordingly. If you want to run a 7th Sea live-action event, then running it the during a summer of swashbuckling movies is a good idea. Similarly, the idea of everyone playing a Harry Potter LARP is probably far more appealing right now (summer of 2003) than it will be five years from now. Feel free to capitalize on trends, as long as you do it in a timely manner.
If you're ever in doubt, plot for a general setting, rather than a specific game's mythos. Run a fantasy LARP rather than a Dungeons and Dragons event, or a horror game, instead of Call of Cthulhu. Whilst specific systems appeal to many players, if you cast your net wider than that, you might acquire more players - as well as being free of that game-setting's limitations. Sure, in Cthulhu, everyone goes insane when they see a monster, but in your diceless modern-horror setting...
The following criteria determine a LARP plot:
- Did I mention conflict?
For the ease of examples, I'm going to create an example LARP "Tyrian Purple and Royal Blood" - a murder mystery set in mythic ancient Rome (historical fantasy, in other words), featuring an Emperor murdered in the midst of a banquet. The action begins shortly after the Emperor falls over with a blackened face during dessert. It's clear that he has been poisoned, and away we go!
Here are some elements that should be present in every LARP plot:
- A definite deadline that effects all of the characters. "If we don't present a culprit to the Emperor's fanatically loyal German bodyguard by midnight, they're going to kill all of us, just to be sure. By the way, they've locked us all inside the banquet hall."
- A clear, easy-to-understand central plot. This should be blindingly obvious to all concerned. Go with the classics: a mystery to be solved, a prize to be won, a looming threat to be defeated - Who killed the Emperor. Who will be the next ruler of Rome? How are we going to convince those lunatic Germans we've caught the genuine culprit? Think of all of your favorite stories. Despite any twists and turns, there was always a simple, central goal. Indiana Jones had to find the holy grail, the Rebels had to stop the Death Star, Hamlet had to avenge his father, etc. Leave the intricate examinations of the human psyche to the novelists - you don't have enough time or control over your setting to get that deep.
- A clearly defined 'in-game' location. I get into that in Setting Matters below... In the case of "Tyrian Purple and Royal Blood", the characters are in a 'locked room' setting, namely the Emperor's banquet hall.
- Conflict between the characters. That makes things very exciting for the players as they try to juggle dealing with the main plot and their own character-driven motives. "You're a swine, Senator Domitius. I've believed that ever since you swindled my father out of his fortune, and never mind your story that my father willingly spent it on wine and women!"
- At least one sub-plot that fits the theme of the game. This can - and should - spin right off the main plot. "The Emperor's dead, a terrible tragedy. I wonder who did it? For that matter, who will replace him? We have all the kingmakers present - the leaders of the Senate, General Galba and the head priest of Jove's temple." Again, this helps ensure that your characters have a sufficient reason for remaining on scene.
- Every character has at least one goal that involves them with another group or faction of characters - but doesn't necessarily tie in with the main plot. This goal should be specifically spelled out in the player's information packet. No character is an island, nor should you write them as such. A LARP in which no-one is collaborating or cooperating is going to be a dull game. For example: Senator Gallo, you want to jump on this chance to be Emperor. The throne would give you the means to pay off the startlingly large gambling debt you've accumulated. Most of your debts are to Senator Domitius, and he wants payment by the end of the week. If you can't seize the throne tonight, then you had better take steps to ensure that Domitius can't collect on that debt. Hmm, you heard that Asinus has a bone to pick with Gallo - maybe you can turn that to your advantage.
- Every character has at least one reason to be present at the event in the first place. Before the Emperor fell down dead, that is. The characters don't have to share the same reason. Barbillus the Astrologer wanted to see if the horoscope he cast for the Emperor came true - unfortunately, it did and now he needs a new patron... or High Priest Maurus is hoping to talk Senator Asinus into giving a sizable donation to the temple, particularly after that favor the priests did for his son... These secondary goals don't have to be essential to the success of the game, in fact, they shouldn't be, but they should be very important to the character and able to keep the player entertained as the plot progresses. I like to call these "Crunchy bits" and, like croutons in a salad, they're a tasty garnish and provide a nice contrast to the rest of the meal.
- Every character is interesting, in their own way. No-one is going to want to be the penniless, unpopular swordfighter at the Emperor's palace - unless he's actually a secret agent for the Emperor, and his illegitimate son, to boot. This is a one-shot event, and whilst some things should be subtle, don't stint the "cool factor" for the individual characters. Everyone wants to be cool, darnit! (suggestion courtesy of Lori P.)
- A set of "Victory and/or Defeat Conditions". These are known only to you, of course. Have these conditions clearly defined in your mind early in the plot-creation process, as they will help you stay focused as you go along. In the case of "Tyrian Purple...", it's pretty clear what the conditions are. In this case, the characters must identify the Emperor's assassin.
There are other elements that are optional:
- A McGuffin (term courtesy of the Dreams of Deirdre crew). This is an item - often represented by an actual prop - that has plot significance. There is a prophecy that states whoever holds the Fabulous Ruby of Siam (set in the Emperor's Ring of Office) when Venus aligns with Jupiter will be imbued with godlike powers. or This locket is widely known to be effective against all poisons, because it contains a lock of hair from the Goddess Livia. This something could be a minor 'flavor' prop, or a plot device unto itself.
- More than three goals per character. I consider three goals per character - one tying in with the major plot, and two others that are born of the character - to be the standard number. Anything more than that is gravy. Contrariwise, be careful of overwhelming your players, as they can only absorb so munch information during the pre-game period. If you want to bestow half a dozen goals on a player-character, you had better make those last three absolutely non essential to your overall plot and don't be surprised if the player chooses not to pursue them.
There are several ways to use setting in a convention/one-shot LARP.
- Locked Room. This fits for "Tyrian Purple and Royal Blood". There are advantages to a locked-room setting. First of all, your players can't wander away, and you can more easily track what's going on. Secondly, there's nothing like a 'we can't get out' situation to help heighten tension and create a sense of urgency. Thirdly, a single-room is often all a convention will offer you for your LARP space, so you might as well create a plot that fits your locale.
- Multi Room. This is handy if you're running a larger-scale LARP with more than one Big Deal plot. Separating characters creates a different type of energy. When they can no longer see the entire group in a single glance, the players can't be sure that something Important is going on without their knowledge - such as Senator Domitius scheming with the General of the Armies, or what have you. However, this does mean that you're going to have to work that much harder at keeping in touch with your co-GMs to know what's going on.
- All Over The Darn Place. The only time I would recommend this is if you're running a large-scale LARP (more than 50 players) and you've discovered that you're expected to use a 15' x 15' room for eight hours. Even then, strictly define your playing area and limit it as much as possible. There is nothing more frustrating than realizing that your players have vaporized and are now scattered across the hotel. Players that are spread out across a gaming convention are far more vulnerable to distraction ("Look! The flea market just opened!" or "Joe! I haven't seen you in years! Let's go get a drink...") and you'll have no idea what they are up to, or if they're even in the game any more. If possible, lay claim to one large, open area (a courtyard, a lobby, or even a low-traffic hallway) and declare that the game area. Failing that, stick to something easily understood such as "Only the ground floor of the hotel, except the bathrooms and the bar" and then prepare to rack up some serious mileage as you run around, keeping an eye on things. Furthermore, you can create devices to keep your players in check:
- During the event World on The Brink at KublaCon '03, the GMs had three in-game locations spread out across a hotel but they came up with a handy way to contain the players. Each of the locations was deemed to be many hours apart, on foot, and PCs could only go from one area to another on a landspeeder. All landspeeders (there were only two of them) were played by a GM, holding a card that said landspeeder and characters in transit had to be with a landspeeder. That way, players could not wander off or, if we saw someone arriving to a location without a GM, we could send them back to their starting point.
- Read Running a Convention LARP - Logistics and Sanity to learn more about space considerations. Generally, if in doubt, go for the locked-room setting.
(This section is largely courtesy of Lori P. at Dreams of Deirdre)
Non-player characters exist for a variety of reasons: to spread information amongst the PCs, to control a specific plot device and, occasionally, wield a Deus-Ex-GM should things get derailed.
Controlling Resources: Dreams of Deirdre calls this the "It's my bar" problem. If the location (like a ship or a bar) belongs to a PC, there's no reason the PC can't clear the place by making people walk the plank, be ejected into space, or force them out into the cold without a drink. In these cases, the PCs haven't got the authority to stop the captain/bar owner, etc, and your game can stall. If you must have the bar owner, captain, what have you present, make them an NPC who is neutral. Don't give the NPC reason to side with any one faction, and make them reasonable enough that the players feel that they have a fair shot at swaying him one way or another. Better yet, try to avoid such a location in the first place - this is why "Mass captivity" settings tend to be so popular - if there is someone in charge of the space, he's certainly not talking to the PCs just now...
Information and Experts: NPCs can be the most handy - and most subtle - way of presenting information to the players, in a manner and time of your choosing. That's the nice things about NPCs, whoever is playing them is expecting you to come sidling up to them during the course of the game and say "Your conscience has gotten the best of you, It's time for the priest of Jove to spill the beans about the Captain of the Guard." You can also use such sidling moments to help nudge a plot that is suffering from doldrums. Also, technical expertise can be shared with the group via PCs. It can be a little dull to be the mousy librarian at the Emperor's banquet but he knows all sorts of useful things about the Imperial household that the PCs might want to know - so don your NPC Hat as appropriate and allow the player characters to ask him questions as needed. They get the information they're looking for - if they think to ask for it - and you save a player from being handed a potentially dusty and dull role.
Cautions and Caveats
For the really long list of cautions and caveats, please read LARP Pitfalls and Clawing Your Way Out Of Them - there's about 10,000 words of hard-learned advice waiting for you, there.
Don't overwhelm your players. Some players can absorb reams of material and half a dozen goals - and bring it all to bear in the game, but many can't. Take at look at Running a LARP At A Convention - Logistics and Sanity for more detailed warnings about the likely attention span of a player at a convention. However, if your event is a standalone one-shot event and you have been working with the players to develop their characters during pre-game production, then pour it on. Pre-production time with your playership can really pay off and allow you to add depth to your plot. But, when in doubt, err on the side of caution. Keep the plot simple, keep the goals easy to understand, keep the consequences obvious.
Don't write romantic goals between your PCs (courtesy of Lori P. of Dreams of Deirdre). Let's be honest, there aren't many female gamers out there, and those that show up to your game might not be very keen on playing out a romantic relationship with a stranger - and the menfolk might not be very keen on it, either. If you absolutely have to have some sort of romantic entanglement between your characters, try to cast real-world couples into those character roles. If your game is short on such couples, ask the players before you cast the characters. If they say 'no', don't pout, just accept it and re-write on the fly.
Make sure the plot can be solved by the players. I get into this a lot more in LARP Pitfalls... Just because the clues seem blindingly obvious to you, that doesn't mean your players will see their way to the heart of the plot as quickly. You have a gestalt view of the game, your players don't. When creating a plot-line or character-goal, ask yourself "How can this be solved by the characters?". If possible, have two possible solutions for your Major Plot, just to cover your GMing butt - after all, you can't be sure that you'll have a full turnout, or particularly bright players - although LARPers are a fairly sharp bunch, I'll admit.
Don't Put Your Eggs in One Basket. If the skill 'medicine' is essential for the PCs to find out who killed the Emperor, for heaven's sake, make sure that at least two characters have it otherwise you'll be up a creek when the Greek physician offends the former swordfighter and gets a dagger in his vitals. Also, you need to spread out skills broadly enough so that even if your minimum number of players are present, the puzzles can still be solved. If need be, quickly write-in the needed skills on character sheets when you realize that you're running a game with the minimum number of players and you want to make sure that the matter is covered. Players never complain about getting extra goodies on their character sheet.
Hope for the best, plan for the worst. Prioritize your character list in advance of the game and determine which ones must be played for the plot to occur as it should. Make that number your 'minimum attendance' number, and assign those PCs first. Furthermore, it doesn't hurt to assume that at least three players will sign up for your game, but fail to show up when it's time to get started (particularly if you're running the event at a game convention - sleep deprivation catches up with everyone eventually). Give everyone ten minutes to arrive at the game location and, if a player hasn't arrived or sent warning that they're running late by then, hand out their slot to someone else. My opinion is that if a player can make the effort to attend a convention, then they can be on time for my event.
It's really hard to quantify how to plot for a live-action RPG - one shot or otherwise. So often, they begin with a nifty idea "Hey, wouldn't it be fun to play in a game set in ancient Rome?" and are developed slowly and haphazardly over the course of time. Characters are suggested by the core idea of the plot and the characters, in turn suggest subplots and interesting interactions. I'm sure there's a keen metaphor here about creating a live-action RPG is rather like trying to build an entire house, all at once - choosing the curtains before you've even put the subflooring down - but I'm lousy with metaphors and a good one escapes me.
Running a LARP is a challenge, but one that's worth the effort. A well-run LARP enter the annals of local legend and stands a good chance of netting you a group of 'camp followers' - players who make a point of seeking out your events and joining them. Not only does such devotion give a GM the warm fuzzies, but it also ensures your chances of successful games in future, as positive word-of-mouth is spread about your games.
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