No matter how a person might strive, it is impossible to produce the perfect live-action roleplaying game. That said, I think a list of common pitfalls - and solutions - might help all of us get a little closer to perfection. Over the course of writing this article, I've realized that most of these pitfalls and issues are applicable to the tabletop RPGs, also - a nice bonus.
I've done my best to describe the most common problems and pitfalls of a LARP, speculate upon their cause and offer solutions where possible. It is possible that my idea of fixing a problem is your idea of throwing gasoline on the fire - so be it. Do what you think is best for your game - I just hope that even identifying common issues has helped you deal with them.
This essay assumes that you are running a one-shot live-action event - be it at a convention or private location. This article also goes along with the notion that the GM has the majority of control over not only the NPCs, but also the player-characters. Most of my suggestions for intractable PCs assume that GM-created characters as the status quo in your event.
This document is divided into three sections. The first is Plot Pitfalls - obviously, issues that come up when your trying to put together your plot and story. The second section is Game Obstacles - which deals with broader game-issues, such as what to do when the playership decides the GM is "railroading" the plot, etc. The third section describes and discusses various type of problem players. Please note: many of these problems overlap, so don't be surprised if the solutions do, too.
Thanks are owed to my friends for their additions to the general list - I couldn't have thought of all of these issues by myself!
The plot is too complex
This often comes about because the GMs are very into their plotting, they understand every aspect of the game, the ins and outs of every character, and sometimes forget that the players don't have the same gestalt view of events as they do. Just because you understand the game inside and out, it doesn't mean that a player who is totally unfamiliar with you and your gaming-style is going to have a handle on it.
If you're not certain that your game might be too complex, dig up a friend who will not be playing in the game and have them look over your notes. Often, a fresh pair of eyes will find all sorts of things that you have missed.
There are several possible solutions to the problem of plot complexity. The simplest would be to discard one (or more) sub-plots. There is no sub-plot so vital that you can't remove it, and graft the most vital elements onto the main plot. Often, discarding excessive plot-baggage will also reduce your NPC head-count, which will further simplify the game. A plethora of NPCs always adds to a game's complexity.
Another solution is to examine your central plot and de-complicate it. Instead of the Twin-Peaks-esque murder mystery, try to find your way back to a simpler "Whodunit?" structure. Instead of a plot that requires the PCs complete 15 connected tasks to complete the game, whittle the necessary tasks down to eight or so, or make the tasks themselves easier to figure out and complete.
What to do when this comes up during the event: Unfortunately, it's hard to untangle a plot whilst it's in progress. The most subtle solution will be to take your NPCs aside and re-direct them to be more forthcoming with plot hints and suggestions. The next step is to give information directly to the characters - either by suddenly lowering their target number to decipher those strange scribblings upon the wall, or by being the Deus Ex Machina voice in their ear. Do your best to minimize the appearance of "Hand of GM", just because you don't want the players to lose faith in the game.
The plot is too simple
You've created every twist you can think of. You're sure the arcane clues are real brain twisters and that your NPCs are suitably fiendish and difficult to win over to the PCs side and yet... you still think the plot is as clear as a pane of glass. You're envisioning your players romping through your eight-hour plot in 45 minutes, and wondering if it's unseemly to commit hari-kari at a convention... Don't despair.
As above, bring in some help - either an additional game-master, or just a friend to look over your plot notes. Again, you are so close to your game, what might seem distressingly straight forwards to you might be pleasantly murky to a total stranger.
A simplistic plot can be borne of several sources. If you're using a historical incident or media source for your plot, perhaps that source has remained too clear. I know of a Vampire GM who liked to steal plot ideas from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and was quite shocked to discover that his players had seen the show, also - but I'll get into that in more detail, below.
Another possible cause of an overly-obvious plot is just that your conflict is just too simple. I always advocate simple plots, but there is such a thing as going too far. Complicate matters by introducing red-herrings and false clues. Create sub-plots that fit your game's theme and add further dimensions to the central plot/conflict/mystery.
Be careful that you don't go overboard in the other direction whilst complicating your plot. Of course, during pre-production, you can always hack out stuff after you put it in.
What to do when this comes up during the event: This can be tricky, as no-one likes plotting on the fly. Pay attention to the PC interactions, as such interactions are a likely source of conflict and plot development. If you've got a dead-NPC/PC hanging around, watching the game, quickly craft a new sub-plot and throw them back into the mix. Suggestions for last-minute NPCs include: the police, summoned to the site after a previous character's particularly noisy death; a muck-raking journalist looking to get some dirt on this queer archeological dig; a relative of another PC - particularly popular is the younger sibling who has been forbidden from attending the game's main event; an amnesiac fellow clutching a plot clue (which might or might not be genuine); and if you're running a horror-themed game and you've had some corpses pile up already, never underestimate the complications that zombies can provide!
Predictable plot elements
I find that too-predictable plots are most often the fault of relying too much on pop-culture or history for a plot idea. Keep this in mind: Players watch television and read history books, too. Not only that, but they might have read more history, or seen more of that TV show than you have.
There is nothing wrong with using media or history as a launching point for a plot - 90% of Chuckling Cthulhu's events have been inspired by something on the Discovery Channel - but you must take the time to move your plot beyond the obvious ramifications. As the SF Bay Area GMs hereabouts put it - if you're going to swipe a plot from last week's Buffy episode, make sure you file off the serial numbers. Run the plot idea by a fellow Buffy fan. If they say "That sounds just like last season's cliffhanger" you need to get busy with your rasp and file, again. Take your source material, and run with it in an entirely unanticipated direction. If you have to, go to your reference bookshelf (you have got one, right?), declare "I will tie my plot in with something to do with...", close your eyes and point at your shelf. Whatever the topic of the book you're pointing at happens to be, think of a way to tie it in with your game concept. In the end, you might toss the plot out, but the act of trying to connect two very disparate elements ("How am I going to tie the Great Old Ones and modern African cinema together?") will jog your brain out its creative rut, and get you thinking in new directions.
Incidentally, this is one of those times when having several GMs collaborating on a project can be a real life-saver. Co-GMs rarely mince words and will probably mention right up front if they think the inspirational source for a plot is showing through too clearly.
What to do when this comes up during the event: Again, this is tricky. Once your plot is running, it's going to be hard to shoehorn a major change in theme without derailing your own plot. Honestly, it's best to counter blatantly obvious source material during the pre-production of your event.
Boring or Predictable NPCs
If you're running a campy Austin Powers-themed espionage game, then you can get away with Russian-accented megalomaniacs who want nothing more than world domination. But if your game-setting is anything else, then you want to avoid caricatured antagonists and NPCs. If you hear a player say "That character reminds me of Tim Curry in that film..." then you're definitely in trouble. Fortunately, hackneyed or predictable NPCs are easy to spot and easy to fix.
Avoid stereotypes of all kinds. This means no hooker with a heart of gold, no hard-drinking private investigator looking for the man who killed his brother, no genius who wants to take over the world, just to show he can. Archetypes have their place, but if you're reading this document, I doubt it's in your game.
Does your plot demand the presence of cardboard NPCs and concepts? I doubt it. Sometimes, a character comes out flat because you're in a rush to get things done (you should have heeded my warnings in How To Run A LARP - heh), or because there's not enough for them to do, aside from "Be The Bad Guy".
Give your NPCs complex motives, and justifications for those motives. For example: rather than just "The antagonist wants to win the favor of his dark god", get into why this NPC worships a dark god in the first place - maybe it's a family tradition that he's not happy to continue. Furthermore, rather than just worshipping his dark god, maybe your NPC wants to establish a rapport with It - perhaps with the intention of being freed from that family obligation. Sure, that's weird, but it's certainly not what the players are going to expect.
Give your NPCs multiple goals. Not all of them have to be plot-essential. After all, you want to make sure that your NPC volunteers have enough to do, right? Giving your dark god worshipper a passion for rare orchids and an unrequited crush on another player-character offers all sorts of opportunities for breaking new ground and keeping the PCs on their toes.
What to do when this comes up during the event: If you've been vigilant during pre-production, this situation shouldn't arise uring game play. But, nobody's perfect, so... Create off-the-cuff secondary goals for your NPCs, as suggested above. They don't have to be tied in to the main plot, but will give your NPC more flavor and depth than they had before. Suddenly giving your evil-as-evil-can-be NPC a tender concern for small children (no, nothing gross) will throw your PCs for a loop. Ditto for making your lumbering-sidekick a secret bibliophile. These secret little twists will subtly affect your characters' motives, and quite possibly move your plot in some very interesting directions!
The PCs are too shallow, or they aren't sufficiently connected to each other
In many ways, this is similar in nature to the NPCs are boring/predictable, and the solution is similar.
Develop your PC backgrounds. Rather than handing them a character sheet and a one sentence summary - "You're an alcoholic author, looking to make his reputation", give the player a full explanation as to why they are an author, how they became alcoholic, what they would like to be famous for and what they are willing to do to get that fame. Any player can absorb and retain a half-page of background. Many of them can absorb - and sometimes ask for - more. I'm very lucky in the fact that most of the Chuckling Cthulhu regulars ask for pages of character background - although I don't appreciate it when I'm up to midnight every night of the week preceding the game, bashing out backgrounds!
Develop your PC goals. My general formula when outlining a game is "Everyone has something, everyone wants something". It's very basic, yes, but it gets you started on the right foot, and reminds you that every PC needs a motive or goal to justify their presence on the scene. Once you've outlined your basic "Got this, wants that" ideas, then start working on the secondary goals. Usually, these come to me whilst I'm writing the characters' backgrounds. Hm, I've given Old Man McCreery a passion for antique silver - what if he's decided that he wants to marry young Miss Minniver who comes from an old-money family, reputed to have a fine collection of Georgian silver? What if Miss Minniver has a fiercely jealous fiancee? Oh, that could be young Bob Wilkins, the town policeman... and so on.
If you're having a hard time coming up with PC sub-plots, here's a quick and dirty trick I resorted to when forced to write a larp for 25 in less than two weeks. Make a list of your PCs, grab a six-sided dice and a pen. A roll of one or two is dislike, three or four is neutral and five or six are positive. Roll for every character's attitude towards every other character in the game. Once you have your vast list of "PC attitudes", start thinking of reasons why that attitude exists. Naturally, some character attitudes will have already been determined by your plot, but if you don't already have an opinion noted, create one randomly. Again, this is another way to force your imagination out of a creative rut.
Another thing to do is randomly connect your PCs to each other. Every character in the game should have a connection with at least two others - to prevent a character from being left out of the plot - but there's no harm in connecting them further. Use a character list and a pin, create random pairings and, again, make them work. It's fun, I assure you!
Incidentally, I find Excel is very handy for making little spreadsheets to track the results of all this random PC connection.
What to do when this comes up during the event: If you're lucky, then your player is well able to look after himself and has acquired new goals on his own time. However, luck sometimes runs against game-masters. Much like dealing with shallow-NPCs, you're going to have to pull additional motives and goals out of your ear, and present them to the PC. There's no really subtle way to do this - no, really, you really do feel very fond of Miss Minniver - but the player will probably appreciate the additional motives. Alternatively, you can take the player aside, and quickly brainstorm with them for some new goals, rather than handing them down from On High.
The PCs are too deep
This one is trickier to spot in pre-production, because of the GMs closeness to the plot - see The Plot is Too Complex, above.
My rule of thumb is that if you're running an event at a convention, a player will only absorb about a page of material - so con-games usually force you to keep the character background short and sweet. However, at special one-shot events, players are much more receptive to material (they're not over-excited or over-tired or dealing with convention distractions) and can absorb several pages of material, particularly if you deliver the initial chunk via e-mail, before game day. So, the temptation to over-develop a character can be quite strong.
If you can't keep your PC motives straight, then consider this a warning sign that you might have over complicated matters. Ditto if you have resorted to a MS Project flowchart to keep track of everything - unless you're running an event for 100 players, you masochist.
The answer, obviously, is to edit your character goals and backgrounds. Start with the crunchy sub-plots - the ones that won't derail the main plot if you remove them. Then examine the extent of their connections to the other PCs. Despite what I just suggested above, if you're running a large game - forty players or more - a character does not have to have a connection with every other character. Connect your PCs to those who are in the same milieu - socially, professionally, emotionally - and a couple who aren't. That's all.
If a character is still too complicated, simplify their main goal, or split the concept into two characters. In my capacity as character-maven for a Vampire LARP, I often receive concepts that are ten pounds of PC motive stuffed into a five pound bag. In response, I'll break the single, complicated concept down into several simpler ideas - the cocky thrill-seeker, professional gambler type on one sheet, the anthropological linguist and occult student on another.
What to do when this comes up during the event: More often than not, your player will deal with this situation, one way or another. Either they will prove their sterling qualities and actually juggle all the elements you've poured atop of them. Or they'll ignore whatever they consider secondary, or just too difficult to pursue. Of course, if their idea of 'secondary' matches your notion of 'plot-vital', then you have a problem. Take the player aside, and talk with them about the situation - then you can ensure that he doesn't inadvertently drop his most important goal. Keep an eye on your game and try to remedy this sort of problem as soon as they manifest, as overwhelmed players have a nasty habit of leaving the scene to sulk/catch their breath. leaving the other PCs and the GM high and dry - not good.
The plot pacing is too slow
Whilst you must count on your PCs to take care of things in a timely manner (if you rail-road, you will lose player interest - more on that, later), there are steps you can take to ensure that everything ticks over nicely in an exciting fashion.
Create a plot-schedule. This is not a holy document, to be obeyed by all (see railroading, in Part 2) but a list of general-timing and how you would like to see events unfold. Given that you can't predict what your PCs will do, your plot schedule will focus on NPC actions (which you can dictate) and Hand of God events.
An example: 0hr 30mins - the old professor dies of apparent coronary (side effect of attempt to summon a Hound of Tindalos). 0hr 45mins - Young Harold proposes to Miss Minnerva. 1hr 00mins - the incoming thunderstorm knocks out power to the house, revealing the secret message daubed on the wall in glow in the dark paint. 1hr 15mins - a mummified corpse (Madame Clarke) falls out of the increasingly crumbly ceiling
Just reading over that list will give you a notion if you are stacking things too closely together, or too far apart. Generally, I let the first thirty minutes of any game unfold at its own pace, as the player-characters need time to get to know each other and determine their attitudes. Then you can start piling on the plots. On the whole, you want to increase the frequency and/or importance of events as your game progresses. There's nothing as satisfying as watching the PCs run around in an increasing panic.
If, in reading over your plot-schedule, you realize you have got too great a gap between major plot events - I tend to prefer lulls of no more than 45 minutes during a six-hour game - then you have a couple of options. The simplest is to just shorten your game. Instead of eight hours, bring it down to six hours - that should obliterate most of your slow moments right there. Alternatively, you can create additional plots that will help fill up the quiet time. Be careful not to overplot, of course.
What to do when this comes up during the event: You had every reason to believe that your plot would hit the ground running, that the NPC would start with the evil laughter twenty minutes into the event, that all the elements for a pot-boiler were nicely in place and yet... everyone is staring at each other, apparently waiting for something to happen. Drat.
It's quite possible that the PCs are waiting for something to happen - which is a disconcerting sign for even the most seasoned GM, as it doesn't bode well for the rest of the event. Regardless, the first thing to do is to prod your NPCs into action. Perhaps you want to move that first murder up to, oh, now or remind another NPC that they're on a tight deadline to obtain the Ruby of Siam. NPCs exist to be directed by GMs, so don't hesitate to mobilize them.
If your NPCs have moved into action, the bodies have hit the floor and the Ruby of Siam has gone missing (as planned) and things are still dragging, it's time for you to revise your plot schedule on the fly. Get together with your other GMs (if any) and take a razor to your game-schedule. Picking up the event-pacing isn't too difficult, as long as all GMs are aware of the change. Don't forget to discreetly inform the NPCs, too. Providing you have your emergency meeting in private, your players will probably remain quite unaware of any major change - better a shorter game than a slow one!
Everything ties into the main plot
You want your players to have enough to do, but that doesn't mean that they all need to be focused upon the same plot. Your primary plot should be something that concerns all of the PCs, true - "If the saboteur isn't found, our submarine will sink" - but you should include secondary plots that are not connected to the main plot. They can fit the theme of the game - "What was that message the captain received, and why won't he talk about it?" - but the success or failure of your secondary plots should not determine the success or failure of your primary plot.
Furthermore, emphasis on "all roads leading to Rome" can lead to a bad case of impacted PC action. You'll have all the PCs attempting to converge on the same spot - physically or figuratively - and a bottleneck in a game can be just as annoying as one on the highway. No-one will be able to progress at an exciting pace, and frustrated players have a nasty tendency to disappear from the site or undertake a deliberately destructive course of action in an attempt to break the bottleneck.
A variant of this problem is "Take It To The Top" syndrome. I've seen this most frequently in Vampire: The Masquerade - the court goes running to the Prince and Primogen to solve their problems. Now, that's partially a fault of lazy players (not much you can do about that) but a GM can take special care to create plots that can't be solved by "taking it to the top". A GM can engineer matters so that those at the "top" lack the skills and/or inclination to solve the problem, which throws the plot back into the lap of the intended recipients.
So, create an event which features one primary plot and at least one sub-plot, or several plots of equal importance - and ensure that those plots are independent of each other. My formula is "one sub-plot per every five player-characters" - that tends to insure that there's enough going on, but not too much.
What to do when this comes up during the event: If you haven't caught this one during pre-production, you're going to be in trouble. If you can, disperse the plot interest amongst several NPCs - instead of one NPC looking to steal the Book of Yig and summon nastiness, perhaps one NPC wants the book for sheerly academic purposes, whilst another one wants it for its summoning prowess and then tell those two NPCs that they despise each other.
Or, you can quickly create a couple of new sub-plots - see The Plot Is Too Simple, above - and toss them into the mix. This could be particularly effective if you identify a problem early in the game.
The "cool prop/costume" factor is overtaking the "cool plot" elements.
Alright, I'll admit that I'm including this only because it's a recurrent problem of my own - but I suppose it might be happening to some other GMs, too!
Ambiance overtaking plot is a particular risk in LARPs. After all, one of the huge attractions of live-action is the ability to dress up in-character, and immerse yourself in an evocative atmosphere. But you must be careful that you are not sacrificing your cool plot for a more superficial cool-factor - leave that to action movies!
I'm going to quote myself from How To Run A Cthulhu LARP for this - Plot first, props second. Plot first, monsters second. No-one is going to care about your carefully wrought flock of Mi-Go if no-one understands why they have manifested on the scene in the first place. Monsters and props are cool and fun, but the plot is the most important aspect of your game. Plotting can get frustrating some times, and the idea of making cool creatures (or, in my case, costuming) can be an easy escape from that stressor. A little bit of escapism is fine, but crafting that Deep One at the expense of your plot is a bad decision and you will regret it.
What to do when this comes up during the event: This will probably come up whilst you are simultaneously realizing that your plot is too thin - because you spent all your time painting a trompe l'oeil mural for the game location. To remedy that situation, just scroll back to the relevant section.
Plot Issues That Will Arise Only When The Game Is In Progress
The PC with the vital information/skill gets killed or refuses to share.
This is a toughie. You've laid out the clues, you've made sure that your square-jawed hero has what he needs to rescue the fair maiden (or whatever) and the hero has decided that he would rather go play footsie with the meglomaniac NPC's sidekick. Or, worse yet, he has no idea that he's supposed to be saving the fair maiden.
First of all, a refusal to share information can be borne of will or accident. You will need to determine which this is, before proceeding. Take your player aside and gently ask them why they have not yet rescued the beautiful princess from the fire-breathing dragon. If your player has merely gotten confused, he will appreciate this gentle reminder, and things will be back on track, shortly. However, if your Shining Knight says "Because the Princess is a bitch, and her Uncle has paid me a thousand florins to let her burn" then you're going to have to do something.
The best way to avoid this situation is in pre-production. Every plot-point should have more than one way it can be resolved. The Knight might take a payoff to leave the Princess to die, but what about her faithful squire who has loved her from afar for years? Ensuring that there are least two 'outs' for every plot also helps keep things bubbling, even if your player-turnout is lower than anticipated. The more ways there are for a plot to be resolved, the more likely it will be resolved.
You should never put your eggs in one basket - in terms of plot or skills. My general rule of thumb is that a plot should be solve-able by one half of your PCs. I don't mean that one half of the player-characters should always have access to a Deus Ex Machina that will get them out of trouble, but that if half of your characters got together, they have enough information, skills and general brainpower between them to solve the plot. This formula also keeps your game intact if your attendance is much lower than anticipated. The plot should not require the presence of every single character to be resolved.
Never give the skill Psychology to only one PC in a Cthulhu game. Never give the skill Kindred Lore to only one kindred in your Vampire game. Two Jedi are better than one. You get the idea.
What to do when this comes up during the event: Is this plot vital to the game's success? If not, then let the Princess be reduced to ashes and concern yourself with the Primary Plot. You're not here to railroad every little thing. If the players actions are going to screw up the overall game, then you are going to have to resort to a little bit of Hand O'God. Either give another PC a goal that will put them on the road to fixing the plot that has been held up, or tweak the plot circumstances so that they can be resolved by someone who is already halfway there. If it's a case of "The one guy with the vital skill is now dead", exercise your Pen of GMly Might and add that necessary skill to the character sheets of two other PCs. No player ever complains about getting extra stuff.
The PCs are not interacting sufficiently
I only include this one in order to point out that a GM can't fix all of the problems in a game. If you presented an event with a sufficient number of engaging plots and well-developed and connected character concepts and the players are still staring at each other like kids as the junior-high dance, then there's not much you can do...
I exaggerate. What you can do is set your NPCs loose. An essential function of non-player characters is to advance your plot, and to shove it in the right direction if it's going awry. If your PCs aren't talking to each other, remind your NPCs to go mix it up with them - have them introduce PCs to each other, or give the PCs tasks that will require their approaching other characters for completion.
The plot goes way off any track that was anticipated by the GM
Alright, this one you can fix, sort of.
First of all, it is a disastrous mistake to try to anticipate every single quirk and nuance that will emerge during your game. You will drive yourself nuts, and you won't think of half the things that will actually happen, anyways. Players can be unpredictable little beasts at times, even when you're the one who created their characters. Once you have created the characters' goals and the plot of the game, you should have already completed the majority of your speculation.
As a game-master, you have to be the flexible sapling, not an unyielding oak. Why? Because if you insist "The plot is supposed to go this way!" your players will say something eloquent along the lines of "Bite us!" and leave. Players hate being railroaded, and they're more perceptive than GMs are willing to admit.
Let the plot go awry for a while. The odds are that the tangent will peter out - for lack of information or progress - and the players will get back on track. As mentioned, players are smart, and if they notice that they're not getting anywhere with their current course of action, they will abandon it. They want to finish the plot as much as you do. It can be difficult for a GM to watch the entire party go off on in an unexpected direction, but it's better if you let them find their own way back. The Chuckling Cthulhu crew certainly didn't anticipate the formation of the First Osage Militia whilst running Pandora's Carnival but the plot played out as expected, despite every PC arming themselves to the teeth and engaging in several unanticipated firefights...
If things are seriously askew, lean on your NPCs before going to the player-characters. NPCs are there to be leaned-upon, and they won't be resentful.
If you resort to going to your PCs, determine the ringleader - by the time your plot has gone off course, there will probably be one or two characters who have emerged as the ones the party look to for direction - and take them aside. As per the PCs are not sharing information problem, first make sure that your players haven't simply forgotten their goals. If they have, provide them with the information they need to get back on track. If the players are adequately informed and are treading the current path for kicks, then you have a choice. You can either whisper discreetly "Um, I would appreciate it if your Professor would get back to translating the Tome of Doom, rather than chasing Miss Minniver to the altar.", or you can be a little less subtle and hiss "If you keep following this course of action, you're all going to die!". It's unsubtle, but it gets the point across. Overall, it's better to lean on your NPCs, if any leaning is going to be done.