LARP Combat design notes
A few weeks ago I put up a few posts, all secretly hinting at a LARP. I’d intended to follow up the next week but then a bunch of traitors all tried to hire me, so I had to go through their interview torture processes just to escape. The process isn’t quite over yet, but I’ve managed to finally get out of the null zone and broadcast my Very Loyal thoughts to all you Very Loyal citizens. Let’s talk about LARPing Paranoia.
My spouse and I have co-written a LARP and have done two playtests, both excellent successes but also pointing to the need to shore up a few loose ends. Then CO-V-ID-19 happened and it turns out that getting a bunch of people together in the same room for four hours is a really bad idea. Bummer. Hopefully things will open up later this summer and we’ll get to run a few more games. Eventually we’ll publish the thing (I know you’re reading this /u/wjmacguffin
, get at me).
For now though, let’s talk combat. Combat is central to Paranoia. Ask any Paranoia veteran about their favorite moments playing Paranoia and most of them will be some form of combat. It might not be straight roll-for-initative combat, but it’ll be some sort of violent, usually-explosive conflict. Combat in Paranoia is fast-paced and wacky. Players love it because anything can happen and usually does.
This is incredibly difficult to replicate in a LARP setting. I’ve never found a combat system in a (non-boffer) LARP that I’ve enjoyed. Boffer is fun, but not in the goofy Paranoia way we all love. It might be possible to run a combat-light LARP in the Straight style of Paranoia but that’s a bad idea for one key reason: I suck at running Straight style Paranoia. So we’ll need to write a combat system from scratch.
To sum up, the goals of our combat system were:
- Work in a LARP atmosphere of players who probably don’t know each other
- Be loud, goofy, and memorable
- Allow for player creativity
Version 1: Form-Based Combat
What could be more Paranoia? Two players locked in vicious combat, furiously filling out forms at each other. We wrote up a couple different forms for combat. We wanted questions to be fairly easy to answer unless the player was under pressure
. Types of questions:
- Simple math equations
- Questions about the player’s character
- Including some treasonous ones, where the “correct” answer wasn’t the true one
- “What do you know about the Ghenna Incident?”
- Nonsense questions, “What did the Jabberwocky end up with in the Plutarch?”
- All forms ended with the Google “Check here to confirm you’re not a robot” prompt
We spent quite a bit of time designing the forms, rules for engagement, equipment modifiers, etc, and then printed out a whole pile of them for use during the LARP.
It was a colossal failure. Exactly zero form-based combats happened. Playtesters mentioned afterwards that the rules around combat were confusing. Nobody wanted to stop playing for a few minutes to fill out forms, even if the questions were funny. We had to scrap the whole mechanic (don’t worry though, we recycled the paper).
Looking back, the form-based system was funny in concept, but missed on quite a few of the design goals. The joke wore off quickly and wasn’t likely to result in the deep gut laughter we were going for. The forms might feel urgent but there’s a difference between urgent and fast-paced. Ultimately, the forms just slowed everything down and our playtesters wisely chose to route around them.
Luckily, we didn’t have to go all the way back to the drawing board. While there wasn’t any form-based combat, there was plenty of other kinds of combat...
Version 2: What if everything worked like grenades?
We’d also built in Dave’s Innovative Grenades
because I’m incapable of designing a Paranoia mission without them. To preserve the surprise nature of the Innovative Grenades, we wrote the item description on a small piece of cardstock and put that inside a tiny manilla envelope. To “throw” a grenade, a player would hand the envelope to the target, who would open the envelope and read the contents aloud.
The envelope grenade mechanic was a smashing success in the first playtest. We ran out of grenades and had to start writing new ones on the fly. Players were incredibly creative with the envelopes. One player placed theirs on the floor, another hapless player picked it up and shouted “Someone lost their grenade!” and immediately realized what they’d just done to themselves.
So we got rid of the form-based system and redesigned everything around the grenade system. Envelopes now came with a label lightly taped to the outside so the holding player knew what the item was. On use, the player pulls off the label and hands it to another player, who has no idea what’s coming. We also added a defensive system, where a defending player could use a defensive item (which were very rare) and the attacking player suddenly would find themselves opening two envelopes!
This fulfilled all of the design criteria - it was easy to explain, fast-paced, and very, very silly. When designing the effects of the weapons, we decided to split the effects into three categories: Item works as intended, Item is more effective than intended, Item benefits target. The effects were roughly split 50/25/25. A player could reasonably expect an item to work as intended (with some possible collateral damage) but there was still a good chance it’d backfire and a player would discover they’d thrown a cash grenade at a target, not an explosive one (note to self: add Johnny Cash grenade).
Here’s some example envelopes and what happens when they’re used: https://i.imgur.com/Tm80bHh.png
The second playtest with envelope mechanics worked splendidly. Players eagerly used any and all envelopes they had to assassinate, counter-assassinate and just cause general chaos because they could. Several players had clone numbers that went up in the dozens as grenades, blasters, charged explosives and spiderbots filled the air. One player stole an envelope and blew up another player a week after the LARP (they worked together). The Grenade-A-Rang wiped out a whole room and had players demanding items specifically targeting entire rooms (that’s what the blank cards were for!). The baby slept through most of it!
I think we’re happy with the combat system (at least happy enough to start laminating the cards). There’s plenty of goofs to add, but the fundamentals are there. One thing we’re thinking about adding is different types of weapons (you can see the types in the image above). This adds some complexity, but really opens up the design space around defensive modules, which need to be very limited right now because they’re so powerful.
There’s much more to our LARP (You’ll notice I’m talking about players and not Troubleshooters!) and hopefully I’ll have some write ups on that in the future. No promises about when, my schedule is all over the place.
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