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

Appeal

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...

Plotting

The following criteria determine a LARP plot:

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:

There are other elements that are optional:

Setting Matters

There are several ways to use setting in a convention/one-shot LARP. 

Using NPCs

(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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