Lessons learned from game design applied to LARPing.
I've been both a game designer and a LARPer* for many years now and have always felt like the two fields, despite being different in many important ways, can greatly benefit from each other.
When designing a LARP, game masters often make decisions based on gut feeling and personal experience, without taking into account years of research done in a field very similar to LARPing - Video games.
In this article I will attempt to list various video game design** wisdoms that I feel are not applied enough in LARPs but can very much help make ropleplaying a more balanced and interesting experience.
So if you are planning on creating a new LARP or improve an existing one without frustrating your players, read this.
1. Have a clear design goal!***
This sounds basic, but it is surprising how many Game Masters miss the mark on this.
When you have a clear design goal and "Overall intended feel" to your game, it is much easier to not design contradicting mechanics.
Your game is a dangerous survival experience? Dump that "Resurrection" spell from your spells list.
Your game is a festival designed for fun and drunken brawls? Simplify your combat mechanics.
The bottom line is very simple - Every time you come up with a mechanic, ask yourself if it benefits the overall feel you wish the game to have or hampers it. If it's the latter, throw that mechanic out the window.
1.1 Stop copying mechanics from other games just for the sake of it!
The fact this mechanic worked great in that giant LARP in germany with hundreds of fighters battling in the same time, doesn't mean it's gonna work out in your 5v5 tournament based LARP!
2. Different players play for different reasons!****
Despite rule 1, remember that different players come to your game for different reasons and design your mechanics with that in mind.
Some players love combat, while others will do everything in their ability to avoid it. Some wish to "win" as much as they possibly can, while others come for the immersion of being a regular person in a fantastical world.
Make sure you keep as much of your player base in mind when designing your mechanics to avoid unnecessary frustrations during the game.
3. Balance matters!*****
When balancing a LARP mechanic, game masters rarely balance it to perfectly accommodate all players, which is fine. Some players play the poor, living in the slums of a city, while others play lords and kinds, and making the two groups balanced is obviously a ludicrous concept.
Some mechanics, however, should be considered under the magnifying glass of a balancing QA, especially those aiming to achieve similar goals, such as obtaining game currency.
Let's use the following example -
Ana is playing a herbalist, going out into the wilderness to collect wild plants which are used as ingredients for potions in the game. For the sake of simplicity we will say that the main plant she collects is wolfbane, which she can find approximately one each hour and costs 10 gold at the NPC station (and therefore she cannot demand a higher price than that).
This means Ana can make 10 gold per hour (tops) while also risking her life by going into the dangerous wilderness.
James is playing in the same game as a blacksmith. He can make 1 sword per hour and can sell it for 50 gold to the NPC guards, with minimum risk from the comfort of his workshop in town.
Ana and James are essentially doing the same thing (making gold) but at very different paces, which might cause frustration in Ana.
There can be many justifications to this situations, such as the game world not being a fair place, Ana's ability to overthrow the NPC wolfbane merchant or the fact that many blacksmiths can catch on to this imbalance and the economy will eventually balance itself on its own.
All of these are perfectly fine explanations when done CONSCIOUSLY! If the imbalance of the mechanic is done on purpose to push to a certain situation or gameplay, this can be a wonderful tool to do that. Throwing out unbalanced mechanics, while the plan is "for something to happen" is, however, usually ill advised.
4. Prepare for munchkins!******
Being a munchkin ruins the game for everyone and telling your players not to do that is usually a great idea, but the more players in your game, the more likely one of them will try to break your rules to their benefit.
Your mechanics must leave as little room as possible for cheaters to succeed! Whether it is by punishing munchkins even for small offenses, having automated systems keeping track of data (such as resource possessions) or even increased enforcing of the rules by your team.
Trust is important, but the bigger the game, the less you should rely on your players playing fair.
5. Have an easy learning curve!*******
Probably the worst example I've seen of not following video game design wisdom in LARPs is the learning curves.
Make sure your mechanics don't have to be learned by heart and that if a beginner player wants to come he doesn't have to know how everything in the game works.
And by the love of God, please stop forcing your players to memorize walls upon walls of text on your website and make your mechanics more accessible with -
a) Making video tutorials.
b) Having complicated rules only relevant to players who wish to learn them (such as advanced magic systems).
c) Lowering the number of things a player needs to keep track of (either by simplifying the mechanics or automating some of it).
In conclusion - LARPing is great and writing LARPs is also great, but like in any other field, being conscious of your choices and having a reason for making them is a big plus.
If you want to write down mechanics for a LARP, video game mechanics are a great place to start learning how to do this right and even though the lessons you'll learn there won't apply 100% it's always a good start!
So good luck and have fun in your LARPs!