April 25, 2014

Example Adventure Style LARP Session Agenda

Time for another LARP post!  I wrote about Adventure Style LARP previously, and a commentator asked for an example session. I had to invent a whole fictitious session in a comment, so it made sense to use that for a weekly post.

Here's my totally invented, short, small, low-budget adventure LARP example session design:

Basic Information:

  • Game Time: Saturday 1p-5:30p
  • Players:  20 players, who have to agree to cast NPCs for a certain amount of time
  • Game Fee:  $10.  Produces just enough for the site, like so many other LARPs out there.
  • Site:  Low-cost urban meeting space, 1 large room, 1 small side-room.
  • Staff:  One head GM, one assistant/floor GM.  I imagine additional staff positions are also filled: One player serves as webmaster out of game time, another player serves as site coordinator out of game time, and two players serve as writers for subplots.

An adventure LARP happens when external plots (Adventure style LARP games) have greater consequence, scale, or excitement than internal competition (Elysium style LARP games).  A good adventure style LARP needs enough staff to handle adventure scenes for all the players simultaneously; an agenda for each event to coordinate players, staff, and space; and cast to play NPCs.  The easiest way to get cast to play NPCs is to make it a requirement for players.  This example LARP has all the hallmarks of a small game with very few resources.  I wanted to show that with good logistics and a good player social contract, you can pull off an exciting Adventure style LARP with no "tabletop standing up" and no "sitting around doing nothing."


In this agenda, the PCs are divided into three "character classes" - the class is not a D&D style class, but a declaration by the player of what kind of scenes that player prefers most.  The class then informs the player what kind of stats to take, based on the kinds of scenes they will be tracked for.

  • Investigators:  These are characters designed to have networks of contacts, social skills, investigation skills.  Players of these characters know their primary activity at the LARP will be uncovering clues, solving mysteries, and interacting with NPCs who have things or information that they want.
  • Occultists:  Magical characters are designed to have magical skills and knowledge.  Players of these characters know their primary activity at the LARP will be solving complex puzzles involving occult symbols, books and knowledge of mythology, and occasionally roleplaying tense magical rituals.
  • Field Agents:  These are combat/action characters who specialize on physical skills, stealth, athletics, burglary, etc.  These players are signaling that they like to put themselves in tense life or death situations including stalking enemies, making hostage exchanges, breaking into secure facilities, and getting into fights.

There's no restriction of abilities.  Field agents can cast fireball or be good at surveillance.  Occultists could be amazing swordfighters, or have interrogation skills.  Investigators could be crack shots, or have a few spells.  The main advantage of having "character classes" is for the player to tell the GM what they like to do most.  Your LARP may handle this in other ways, such as a player survey.  This process is somewhat more diegetic.  It also connects with the agenda and NPC casting requirement.  See below for how that works.  The players are represented by single letters, so you can track a player's participation across the different slots and tracks.  There is flexibility in tracks - players can swap in and out of different tracks unless they've been tapped to cast an NPC.

1p-2p: Setup

  • PCs get Between Game Action (BGA) results.  The Investigators did a group BGA, and their result shows where Kandinsky's office is and that he's leaving to meet a mysterious contact. The team will split three ways. 
  • The Occultists will continue investigating the botched summoning from last game with a seance for one of the victim/participants.  
  • The Field Agents will stay on Kandinsky and hopefully tail his contact.  
  • The Investigators will break into Kandinsky's office while he's out to find more information on the artifact smuggling trade.

Slot 1:  2p-3p: 60 minute slot

  • Track 1 (Floor GM): "Seance" Magic/occult PCs (A, B, C, D, E, plus 1-2 others), 2 cast play NPCs (F, G). 
    • Objective: "Can you learn what went wrong at the Great Summoning by contacting the spirit of Professor Andropov? Are you prepared in case the seance goes wrong?" 
    • NPCs:  Ghost of Professor Andropov; Evil Shade that gets accidentally summoned and pretends to also be the voice of Andropov... until things get hot.
    • Gamespace: Small room or large room, whichever fits best. 
    • Props: Candles, Occult junk.
  • Track 2 (Head GM): "Surveillance" Action/combat PCs (H, I, J, K, L, M, 1 other; but not N, O, P, Q, F, or G). 4 cast play NPCs (N, O, P, Q). 
    • Objective: "Can the team maintain surveillance on Kandinsky without spooking him until he makes it to his meet with his contact? What can the team learn by tailing his contact?" 
    • NPCs:  Kandinsky, Romanof, Romanof's two "pavement artists"  
    • Gamespace: Guerilla LARP in public; crowded streets; Starbucks; metro.
    • Props:  Public space prop restrictions; players leave anything suspicious at game site.

Intermission: Combat/Action PCs pulled out for 30 minute break (may be needed for walk back from prev. scene). Investigators trickle in and learn results of the seance, then head out to their investigation.

Slot 2: 3:30p-5p, 90 minute slot

  • Track 1 (Floor GM): "Quick Search" Investigative PCs (N, O, P, Q, F, G, plus 1 other). 
    • Objective: "While Kandinsky is at the meet, what can the investigators learn about the artifact smuggling operation by searching his office?" 
    • NPCs:  None.  
    • Game Space: Small room; preferably set up as an office. 
    • Props: Laptop (login account prepped for game with pw and files); lots and lots of irrelevant officey paper and junk, clue files, clue photos.
  • Track 2 (Head GM): "Romanof Transformed" Action/Combat PCs (H, I, J, K, L, M, 1 other). All other cast play NPCs. Should provide at least 3, at most 5 NPCs.  Need at least 3 for the minimum combat challenge.
    • Objective: "It turns out Romanof is possessed by a devil when he leads the street team into an ambush in a blind alley. Can the team overcome their attackers without killing Romanof or letting him get away, so that they can bring him back for exorcism and interrogation?" 
    • NPCs:  Romanof and his goons physically transform (so it's OK to swap out cast).  Additional devils appear at the start of the ambush.  
    • Game Space: Starts in the alley behind game site, moves into the large room in game space as Romanof flees. 
    • Props: Devil masks for cast for the spirits that arise to attack the street team.

Denouement: Teams return to "base" to debrief with each other. They should have Romanof prisoner (bound and unconscious so no need for a cast NPC - Romanof will not be interrogated until next session) and need to determine how they, as a group, will treat prisoners, what limits on interrogation, etc.

    • NPCs:  Either use one to play the unconscious Romanof if they need a rest, or else wrap some cloth and cushions in a trench coat and tie it up in a bundle with rope.
    • Game space: Reset large and small room to "home base" set dressing. 
    • Props: Interrogation stuff spanning the gamut from ethical to abu ghraib. Rope, handcuffs, hoodwink, pliers, jumper cables, water pail. Hopefully PCs will agree not to use horrible methods, but if they do, there's probably a morality system to get involved next game.

That's what the framework for a fully plotted adventure style LARP would look like. Note that no scene happens in the "theater of the mind" and nothing requires props that most troupes can't get hold of cheap and quick. Nor does it require a large game space. More players = need more tracks = need more game space of course. But more players = more budget = can afford more game space.

The agenda is just part of the prep!  Prepping an adventure LARP takes a lot of work!

Each scene would have a scene bluesheet, with details for the GM to reference and an agenda for the scene (where to start, when to start certain events, etc.). Each NPC would have a stat sheet and an NPC bluesheet with facts about what they know, what they want to achieve, and how to act.  NPC bluesheets never contain spoilers because they never contain information that the NPC wouldn't reveal during the scene either through their actions or words.

Slot 1, Track 1 (the seance) would require the players to get a seance briefing.  They would probably get "homework" before game -- links to YouTube videos of iconic seances, instructions on how to do a seance, lists of vocabulary about different aspects of a seance, etc.  The people who self-assign into Occultist class PCs are the sorts who love to wiki-dive about cool occult stuff anyway, so the GM would probably assess their existing knowledge, then do some research to find resources to supplement it only if needed.  Still, a YouTube video to get them in the right frame of mind would be helpful, even for players who have a lot of OOC occult experience.

Slot 1, Track 2 (the surveillance/shadowing scene) would require the players to handle some basic tradecraft.  There's homework the GM can send them, as well.  Burn Notice episodes, tradecraft blog posts online, and passages from LeCarre novels come to mind.

Slot 2, Track 1 (the office search) would require a lot of infodump clue props, including computer files, pictures, and paper with clues on it.  The GM and writer would be prepping this stuff ahead of game time so that it looks and feels authentic, contains the clues they need, and adds some level of challenge.  The laptop hack game challenge, for instance, would be designed so that if the PCs failed, they'd still get the core clues they needed from the paper and pictures.

Slot 2, Track 2 (the ambush) would be a LARP combat; and that requires combat stats and careful attention paid to designing a challenge that adds just enough tension and risk to the Field Agents' lives.  It's too large a scene to playtest for such a small LARP, so the GMs will need to know their combat system and PC stats pretty well.  In a LARP like this one, Field Agent PCs probably have magic weapons and spells to fight devils, so that helps make them feel prepared and badass (likely there'll be a second act "darkest hour" transition mid arc, where their advantages are nullified and they get routed; but now is not the time for that).

April 17, 2014

Magic Beans

The Magic Beans trick is a GM technique for generating great plot hooks that feel organic and planned, make the world feel rich and interconnected, and tie up loose ends.

During one story (the "old cow" story), the GM plants a story event that looks like a plot hook, but has vague or totally undefined consequents.  This is the "magic beans."  Next, when the GM wants to draw the PCs into another story (the "cloud giant" story), he creates a follow-up event in which the consequents of the magic beans are revealed (the "beanstalk").  The name of the technique and its elements derive from the classic story of Jack and the Beanstalk.

Jack is a young boy.  His ailing, widowed mother is poor.  Their cow stops giving milk, so she sends Jack to market to sell the cow.  On the way to the market, an old man trades Jack a handful of magic beans in exchange for the cow.  Jack's mother is super pissed when she finds out.  Jack tosses the beans on the ground in shame.

Later, the beans grow into a huge beanstalk reaching into the clouds.  Jack climbs up the beanstalk and finds a castle with a giant sleeping in it.  He robs the giant, taking money and magic items (traditionally a bag of gold coins, a goose that lays golden eggs, and a harp that plays itself), and the giant catches him.  He flees down the beanstalk with the giant in hot pursuit.  He gets an axe from his mother, and cuts the stalk down.  It falls, and the giant dies.  Jack gets away with his stolen loot and lives happily ever after.

The moral of the story is that people who screw up dream of miracles that give them a chance to redeem themselves through risky heroics to make it all better in the end.  But for us GMs, the moral of the story is that you can give the players magic beans, and then later you can have them grow into beanstalks that lead to exciting adventures.

How do you use magic beans?

Magic beans are discovered, not created.  During play, you will create loose ends.  Here are some examples...

  • The PCs are rude to a cranky nobleman in a memorable, amusing scene
  • Their mysterious nemesis kills an innocent person
  • One of the PCs got the Frost Shortsword off his wish list after killing a dragon.
  • The PCs befriended a goblin scout, and the players really like him

If you're following my advice, you've already got good hooks built into the characters' stories and goals, and transition hooks built into your main plot.  But just in case, you should keep a list of magic beans along the way.  Watch for the following kinds of loose ends, and write them down.

Personally, I make sure to mention them in session summaries.  That way I can go back and read my own summaries to find some magic beans I can use for future sky castle adventures.

You might keep a master list of plot hooks or plot ideas.  In that case, write down the magic beans you drop into the story as possible hooks into your possible stories.  If you keep a wish list of scenes or events, pair the wish list scenes with the magic beans you created (No campaign ever ties up all the loose ends, so don't feel compelled to address them all.)

If you're using something akin to my "two steps ahead" style of prep, you can go to your outline level notes every time you drop some good magic beans and see if they work for any of your future plot points, and pencil them in.

What makes for good magic beans?

Good magic beans are created in play, through one of two things:

Emotional Connections:  Any time the players feel pathos about a person, place, or thing in your world, it makes for a good magic bean.  This includes NPCs that they love or hate, magic items from their wish list that they really wanted and finally got, any property (players are mad about owning real estate!), or titles -- which is just a way of saying "status within an organization."  In most plots, you're going to try to make the key NPCs ring with pathos for the players for core hooks integral to the plot, but sometimes minor characters strike a chord with them unexpectedly.  These make great magic beans.  Also, beloved (or dreaded, or reviled) NPCs from past stories can reappear as magic beans in later adventures.

Loose Ends:  Sometimes in the course of a story, the PCs take actions for which there could be positive or negative consequences, but in the interests of moving the story along, you let it pass, for now...  Positive consequences are when the PCs do heroic deeds and others want to thank them, reward them, join them, support them, tell stories about them, etc.  Negative consequences are when the PCs take actions that harm others.  On the Heroes and Hunters story rungs, typically the PCs' actions don't directly lead to negative consequences.  But even on the hunters and superheroes rungs, the PCs' enemies actions can harm innocents, and the PCs might get blamed or at least asked for help.  "Help! Your fated enemy, the lich king, destroyed our village!"

The Beanstalk

Finally, put it all together.  Let's say you have the "magic beans" from the example above and you want to use them to hook into the adventure from my "Dungeons" post.  The initial hook for this adventure is the murder of a Duke, with one surviving witness.

Bean 1:  The PCs are rude to a cranky nobleman in a memorable, amusing scene.
Beanstalk 1:  Use that nobleman as the one who was murdered.  There are three witnesses.  Two were found dead, and one fled.  The PCs are wanted for the murder, because they were seen verbally abusing the nobleman a few weeks before.  They need to find the witness to clear their name!

Bean 2:  Their mysterious nemesis kills an innocent person.
Beanstalk 2:  The murder of the two witnesses to the duke's murder shares all of the signs and trademarks of the earlier killing.  The third witness may have information on their mysterious nemesis!

Bean 3:  One of the PCs got the Frost Shortsword off his wish list after killing a dragon.
Beanstalk 3:  The duke was beheaded with a short blade that left the wound cold to the touch and rimed with frost.  In addition to being wanted in connection to the crime (see beanstalk 1), it implies a twin to the PC's weapon, perhaps a matched set for a dual-wielding ranger if they can track down the killer (Ooh! More loot!).

Bean 4: The PCs befriended a goblin scout, and the players really like him.
Beanstalk 4:  Simply change the priestess of the silver flame to a goblin and make her the scout's sister.  He comes to them begging for their help to find and protect her.  Or else make the goblin scout the new Master of Spies for the Duke ("he's moving up in the world!"), and in the shame of his failure to protect his Lord from assassins, he comes to the PCs as a last resort.


The advantages of using the magic beans trick are that it ties up more of your loose ends, and makes the campaign world feel rich and interconnected.  Plus, magic beans are hooks the players already care about, so you can draw them into stories organically, without even a hint of railroading.

April 11, 2014

Thieves' Guilds

This is a comment I posted on G+ Game Master Tips that I thought deserved to be expanded into a post here.

I love the idea of thieves’ guilds. The way you run a Thieves' Guild should be related to how you color morality in your campaign.

A campaign with a stark black and white morality, or on the Hero or Hunter level of the Horror-Hunter ladder should have a thieves’ guild who represents the poor and oppressed, stealing from tyrannical nobles, jewel-encrusted priests and arrogant wizards. Model them on Jean Valjean and Robin Hood. They would have modern sensibilities, smuggling to avoid blatant mercantilism in favor of free trade, robbing nobles who take all they want by right of birth, conning priests who control their congregation with threats and fear, etc.

Further down the ladder, the thieves’ guild would be better portrayed as a mafia, coming up with price-fixing and extortion schemes, stealing high value commodities like livestock and grain to resell at a vastly inflated price to desperate freeholders, and robbing valuables from less clearly deserving targets in the upper class. Model them on Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Niko Bellic – bad people, but amusingly adventurous NPCs who the PCs can deal with — especially if there is greater evil afoot that takes priority over some racketeering scheme.

At the bottom of the ladder, the thieves’ guild is a collection of despicable people who would rob their own mother, like the despicable bandits of Ken Follett’s amazing books Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. There is a reason the punishment for bandits was hanging in medieval times – they were really awful people. In a full-on fantasy horror scenario, the thieves’ guild is a natural go-to for vampire cults, dark gods, and possessing spirits.

PC Thieves' Guilds

If a PC wants to run a thieves’ guild, match the campaign’s mood and the PC’s alignment or ethics to the level of evil. I had a PC run a spy network, and instead of running scams, blackmail rings, secret interrogation chambers, and networks based on coercion, he paid them quite a lot of gold. His network was not profitable, but it was Good. More like Harper Agents than actual spies.

Remember, the Guild is a hook!  Use it to draw the PCs into adventures.  Thieves encounter challenges and discover opportunities.  Just make sure to convey a criminal theme when you use them as a hook.  No "rescue the princess -- I mean beggar" plots.  Instead, try "cover up the crime" or "steal back the evidence" or "convince the witness that his boss is evil."

What about mechanics for PC Guilds?

Always tricky.  There are downtime mechanics in Pathfinder, so if you play that, just use those.  In non-F20 fantasy RPGs, or in 4e or D&D Next, the Guild could be worth a circumstance bonus in certain skill challenges.  

Otherwise, I would let the Guild collectively achieve one thing significant to the story every adventure.  I wouldn't require a roll; they would just do it.  Maybe it would be to provide the story hook, or to drop an otherwise-impossible to find clue at a crucial moment.

If you can't think of anything else, have them come across a magic item that the Guildmaster PC wants, and sell it to him at a discount.  That way you can use the provenance of the item as a story hook for a later adventure when you figure one out!  

"Wait, you said you stole this showstone amulet from the Schwartzfeld estate?  We just learned that Lord Schrwatzfeld is a lich!  No wonder undead assassins have been attacking me for the past six sessions!  It must be his phylactery!"

April 4, 2014

My Vampires

I've talked about running Night's Black Agents before.  I love the game because it encourages me to wiki-dive for hours about ancient legends and mythology, occult practices and organizations, international organized crime, spies and tricks of tradecraft.  Just thinking about the setting and characters is a lot of fun.

If you're are curious about this game, you should know that there aren't stats for vampires per se.  You, the "director" (which is a pretty good name for the GM of an action thriller game), get to make up your own vampires.  That means the legend, the mythos, the facts about them, their supernatural ecology, their stats, etc.  You do this with a little input from the players - what they would like to see, and what they would rather not see.  But you keep it a mystery from them.  Night's Black Agents uses GUMSHOE, a system built for investigation, so it focuses on tools to create a strong discovery aesthetic.  That means your players are not empowered to direct the narrative.  What are they empowered to do then?  In GUMSHOE, they are empowered to find clues - GUMSHOE characters cannot fail to find clues that move the story forward.

So you build a huge secret mythos for your vampires, and then a huge conspiracy that the vampire master is at the head of.  The players spend the campaign looking for clues to unravel the conspiracy, foil the vampires' fiendish plots, learn how to destroy them, and then do so.  But it's not just following from one clue to the next -- anytime the players want to learn something, they can set about to learn it, at which point you, the GM, have to either give them the information they want or give them a clue to how to find the information they want.

Anyway, here's what my vampires and my conspiracy look like.

(If you're one of my Night's Black Agents players, don't look at these!)

This is what my vampires are like.  I left out the game mechanics and stats and focused just on a brief overview.  I also left out a lot of the results of my wikidiving.  You can do that on your own!

This is what the conspiracy looks like, just in Marseilles.  I don't think my players would be surprised to hear that it goes way deeper than just one city.