With the new season of LARPs starting, we turned to our favorite Game Master, Jon Verrall, to give us some pointers about the finer points of creating the best LARP experience. Beyond just knowing everything this is about LARPing, Jon is also the executive producer of the series. Check out all the new episodes of LARPs: The Series here on Geek & Sundry.
Most tabletop and live-action roleplaying games designate one of the players as the Game Master, or GM. They’re storytellers, referees, and facilitators, and they’re there to make sure that everyone creates a memorable tale and has fun doing so. I’ve been a Game Master for almost my entire roleplaying career, but I’m still learning! It’s very rewarding, but running games can be quite difficult. Here are three major mistakes Game Masters make, and how to avoid them:
The Game Master Player Character
You’ve created an awesome universe and an awesome story. Your players are having the times of their lives running through your story. It can be tempting to want to join them by creating an ally NPC to run with the PCs. Perhaps you want to fill a hole they have in the party (“Gee, they don’t even have a rogue!”), or maybe the PCs themselves invite a favourite NPC to join them. The Game Master Player Character, or GMPC, can be a useful tool, but it’s often a dangerous trap for your game.
There’s a very delicate tightrope to walk. Your players are the protagonists in your campaign; they’re the heroes, the ones up against incredible odds. Every time your GMPC achieves some victory, from small acts like striking an enemy to large ones like stealing the bad guys’ plans, they’re taking an accomplishment from a PC. You risk having your players feel like they’re sidekicks in their own story. Often, you can compare a GMPC to a Mary Sue: they’re a wish-fulfilment character who exist to give their author a chance to play with their power fantasies.
What to do? Consider making any GMPCs considerably weaker than the rest of the party—deliberately make them sidekicks. Better yet, make it clear that NPC allies are just that: non-player characters, and don’t make them permanent additions to the party.
And, whatever you do, don’t make a GMPC a showboat.
RPGs often have rules for advanced characters that offer tantalizing power. These are spells, abilities, and items that are designed for only the highest-level characters. Most campaigns never allow PCs to get to the upper echelons of power . . . but NPCs aren’t so restricted, are they?
This mistake is more common among first-time GMs who are usually players. The temptation to play with the coolest stuff is very strong, but ultimately it can make the players feel hopeless (“We can never beat this bad guy—he has wish!”) or weak (“Are we the only people in the world who don’t have access to Rank 6 gifts?”). It’s not enough to give an incredibly strong NPC some crucial weaknesses to balance their amazing toys, either, since players will often give up before bothering to discover them.
What to do? This isn’t to say that your NPCs can’t be powerful. After all, you want the bad guys to be a threat, and you want to make the world feel awesome and dangerous. Any time you make a powerful character, think about how to use that character to make the players feel badass (instead of powerless).
Excessive cutscenes in video games are often pointed to as a mistake: people play games to play, not watch, and taking too much time away from actually playing can kill momentum.
This can be really common in LARPing: the GM team decides to move the plot forward by having two or more NPCs argue or fight in front of the players, with a pre-determined outcome. It’s like having the courtroom parts of Law & Order for everyone to appreciate… except they often don’t.
When a GM (or a team of ‘em) creates scenes that aren’t meant to be interfered with and involve most or all players simply watching, they’ve removed player agency. Being unable to affect the action in the game can make a player feel bored or frustrated. In the meantime, all the rehearsed dialogue, written descriptions, or excellent choreography is wasted on players who’d rather be doing anything else.
Even trickier: sometimes players will assume that a cutscene is impossible to interrupt, even if you intend it to be, based on previous experience.
What to do? If you must have a cutscene, keep it short. Make sure your players are able to get back into playing as soon as they can. It can really help, too, to make sure your players know that they can take action without fear of being unduly punished. After all, the game is about them.
Obviously, there are very few hard-and-fast rules for running games. It’s completely possible to do any of the things mentioned here and still have a wonderful game. Keep an eye out though, and you just might find your players thanking you!
Have you fallen prey to any of these traps before? What tips do you have for other GMs? Let us know in the comments and stay tuned for the season two premiere of LARPs!