Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Dealing with Firearm Mechanics at LARPs

Editors Note: This post is not suggesting the use of any kind of real firearm at a LARP. Real firearms are not toys.

For more discussion on the subject, listen in to my guest appearance on the Mid-Level Crisis Podcast.

While we've got a ton of high fantasy LARPs around, there tends to be a lack of more modern or post apocalyptic LARPs, at least in the US. I find that the biggest reason for that is that adding a gun mechanic to the game makes scaling a lot more difficult.

Currently, I know of three different games that use guns, and each approaches it differently than the others. Those LARPs are Rising, Exiles, and Wastelands.

Rising uses NERF guns for the gun mechanic in their game. The base damage of guns is only slightly higher than the base damage of weapons, and ammunition is severly limited. The common zombie in that game would normally take three shots (or one aimed shot) or five melee strikes. The big benefit of range is the severity of damage in that game (if they get through your armor, you're a one-hit wonder). Their design is even damage with melee with limited ammunition.

Exiles uses rubber band guns. They do a pretty decent job of portraying the inaccuracy of weapons at that time, and bands are pretty safe. In-game, guns are the great equalizer. Even measly pistols do 20 damage (much more than most people can handle.) In addition, every shot carries a stun effect that knocks you out of the fight for five minutes, unless you're revived or you purchase a very expensive skill. Guns are IG items, and you can't fire them very fast unless you have a very nice gun. Finally, if you're hit in the gun with a melee weapon, you have to drop it. Their design is extreme damage with unreliable weapons with externally limited firing speed.

Wastelands uses nerf and rubber band guns, but they also use Airsoft guns. Guns in that game carry a smaller stun effect (1 minute) and do less damage than Exiles, but far more than rising. They have many limiters on what guns can come into game for safety sake (spring and electric airsoft guns, less than 250 fps, no post-factory mods), and you can only fire your guns once a second. Also, there are zones where you cannot fire your guns and you can never fire at individuals that are within 5 feet of you. Their design is increased gun tech and reduced effectiveness of guns, compared to Exiles.

All of these games have a tough time scaling around the gun mechanic. This is mostly due to the fact that guns are so much more effective (but not necessarily more powerful) than melee weapons in real life, and we have a hard time getting over the real life perceptions of weapons when designing our games. But I also think they've each got some clever ways of equalizing the game around firearms.

So how do we get past this? Here's a couple of things you can try when building a LARP game with guns, or even when building a module in one of those games.

1. No Gun Modules
I don't really care how you work it out, but there are a number of ways you can build in modules where guns simply cannot be used. You can either do this with an environmental limiter (stasis fields, extreme blizzards, underwater) or with what I like to call a "Green Light" Module. Green Light modules are stealth modules where certain game skills that are deemed too loud would set off alarms, causing failure. The reason I call it a green light module is that I would run ambient green light when everything is safe, and then change it to red light if the players are revealed. You know, Metal Gear Solid style.

2. Close Quarters Modules
Build in modules where all the fighting is up close, making melee much more desirable than gun use. When using this style in Exiles, gun users would simply get their weapon knocked out of their hand. In Wastelands, you just wouldn't be able to use them, due to the five foot restriction. In Rising, well, everyone would just die. Damn Zombies!

3. Bring the Damage Down
Guns and martial melee weapons, when used by skilled individuals, can do pretty even damage. Sure, basic melee weapons like baseball bats and such would need a few extra hits but it's not miles apart. Of course, to make up for the fact that you can swing melee weapons faster and guns don't really work in melee, you can add on stun type effects for limited periods of time.

4. Bring the Stun Duration Down
But don't get carried away with the carrier (pun intended). Sure, common people break down stunned when shot, but everyone's at the LARP to play a tough sonofabitch. Make the stun effect 10-30 seconds in length and possibly add skills that let players resist the stun a number of times per day.

5. Deal with Rate of Fire
Finally, even with rules about how often you can fire, players tend to speed up in the heat of combat. So instead of leaving correct play up to the person with the gun, flip the rules around. Make it so a player can only be shot once ever second or two. That way, when a player starts firing faster, the extra rounds they fire end up being wasted ammo, rather than an awkward moment where the players are discussing if the bullets were fired too fast.

So there you have it. Five ways to add firearms to your boffer game without imbalancing the system. Now, if you're just going to have guns, you won't have to worry about a lot of this. But if you're going to do that, then you might as well play Airsoft/Paintball anyways.


  1. Good post. I got to play Exiles once and thought the rubber band guns were really good at simulating the wild west feel. (Very fun game!)

    But the problem with trying to "balance" guns with swords, is that they are very unbalanced in real life. Attempts to make them equal run the risk of feeling incredibly forced and cheesy.

  2. You're right, it can be very difficult to scale. But like most things in LARP, I believe that a conscious plot team can get around pretty much any unbalanced issue. Except, of course, for PvP.

  3. Heya. I'm the creator of Wastelands. Bill's about on the mark here, but I'd like to say a few words.

    As it's worked out... Much of the gameplay in Wastelands DOES revolve around gunplay. But there's plenty of room for other things. We've got two basic character classes devoted to melee combat and packet play respectively. And though they're not as effective in every encounter, they can do amazing things, when played the right way. Not every foe has guns, and packet magic is an economical way to take out melee types. Tough melee fighting mutants can own gunfighters by charging their line and wailing on them while they're in that five feet of safety... But a PC melee type can intercept and drop'em or hold them off, while gunmen shoot the baddie down. And when enemy gunmen need to reload, or neglect to cover their flank... Well, a little stealth or speed can win the day for a skilled PC.

    But at the end of the day? A gun is usually a handy thing to have at least SOME of the time. This fits our setting, so the rules were shaped to support it.

    I'll close with a quick discussion of how we see the five final points Bill raises.

    1. No-Gun modules: Haven't had any of these yet. No comment.

    2. Close-Quarters modules: Had a couple of these, and while we got a few complaints from the heavy shooter PC's the first time it cropped up, they showed up to the next event with backup melee weapons and better tactics. Seems to be something useful as a "wake-up" call, though I wouldn't use it too often. Still, the PC's sometimes need to learn that a gun doesn't solve EVERY situation. A gentle reminder at the start saves deaths later.

    3. Bring the Damage Down: One of the more common monsters in our game, the common zombie, takes half damage from bullets. The PC's still tend to burn down zombies from a distance, because the deaders punch pretty hard, but when our adepts and mages are around they go to TOWN on Zack. It's fun to watch! This is a case where you're not bringing the damage down, merely altering the effectiveness of the damage for an encounter. It works pretty well!

    4. Stun duration down: In Exiles, stun doesn't matter much so long as the doctors are on their toes. In Wastelands, stun doesn't matter much so long as the fixers have stims or the right skill. It's hard to say. I feel a minute is enough and five is too much, but stun duration DOES make the people who bought the stun removal skills/gear feel pretty damn useful. My recommendation? Keep it, but give multiple ways around it. Seems to work.

    5. Rate of Fire: In our game, electric automatic weapons (And the special in-game bullets they take) are rare and expensive. This leads to a predominately spring-driven gunbase. The one per second rule is enforced by the fact that they have to be cocked, and this takes about a minimum of a second for most makes. The ones that CAN go faster, well, you can break them if you abuse this.

    Rate of fire's much more of a problem for rubber-band guns and nerf. They're sturdy as hell, and there's no disadvantage to jamming on the trigger. With airsoft guns, especially cheap chinese ones like we use, it's not really an issue.

    And the electric automatics? Well, the one per second rule doesn't apply for them. Enjoy shooting the bad guys with fast bullets! (If you don't mind the fact that they cost twelve times the amount that regular rounds do...)

    Anyway, food for thought and thanks for posting this, Bill. See you at Exiles!

  4. I am going to say this and everyone can disagree, I think it is completely ludicrous to have a takedown mechanic on the standard weapon delivered strike of a larp. There you go, have at it. I can defend this pretty well but it rally all boils down to the base point, is it fun? Is there a way to make it more fun? If larp combat is fun, and retains its fun quality over time, should we not try to protact the combat for more fun?

  5. Well, to counter that argument, what defines the fact that it retains it's fun over time? Guns can be fun, because people can feel effective and can see real results against a badguy, as opposed to beating on some dude with 1000 body calling cap 2 for an hour.

    Like Andy said - in these games, it does revolve around gun combat. There are melee classes and those classes have the potential to get skills/equipment to make them more effective against guns.

    You're real beef against guns is that, unlike melee, there's no real OOG skill tied around gun defense. Sure, you can get more accurate with guns, but no one can really get better at not getting hit with guns using OOG skill (except for getting better at timing and closing on enemies).

  6. You don't think that larp fighting retains its fun over a 20 or 30 minute period? You don't think that gun fighting would still be fun if it did not have a stun mechanic attatched?

  7. I believe that some LARP fighting does retain it's fun over 20-30 minute periods, but situations are different in different LARPs.

    When you start getting to the point where you spend more time reloading during a fight than fighting, it gets very, very dull. Not to mention that the IG cost of guns and ammunition would make gunplay almost extinct if fights were that long.

    One thing I forgot to talk about is the thin line that you have between mixed combat LARP and melee LARP with projectiles. If guns aren't worthwhile enough, then you just end up playing NERO in cowboy hats.

  8. Sometimes LARP combat that takes half an hour to resolve can be fun. Other times it gets old.

    Depends on the mod, really, and the energy level of the folks involved, and a lot of other factors...

    A typical Wastelands skirmish between gun-using groups usually lasts between 3 and 15 minutes. Depends on how much the groups involve use combat and tactics.

    We've had one fight which lasted forty minutes or so, both sides unwilling to charge through a chokepoint. Ended up with the PC's withdrawing due to running low on ammo. It was pretty intense, but not through ALL of it. Had lulls and high points.

  9. Gun fights can certainly be protracted. If you use cover, terrain, running, hiding, and using your healers. This is true of any fight in any larp - they can be short or long, and it's up to the Plot team to make them fun. But yes, at least in Exiles, the fights tend to be shorter because it IS a deadly game. It's low fantasy with firearms, it's just a little different.

    There aren't that many fights in fantasy games that don't have take-downs (whether carrier attacks or slays or spell abilities or alchemy). Are take-downs used by every PC and NPC in sword and sorcery games? No, but I think it's pretty common between all the factors above. :) Guns are more common in the other games, quite true, but I'm just pointing out that take-downs aren't super uncommon in any game.

    Bottom line, though, guns are just dangerous. I mean, there's a reason we're using them instead of swords, and they came up with the saying "taking a knife to a gun fight" for a reason! A game that uses them has to take that into account, and they have to make sure that there's something for their healers to do. Stun times allow for healers to shine with their abilies. It also allows for things like different types of weapons, different ammunition, and special skills to become important. It allows for customization of a character as the character gets more points to buy skills. Exiles, for example, isn't a game with a lot of effects for healers to remove because it's lower fantasy - so it's important to remember that with few other effects, at least 1/5 of your players, the healers, would have to sit around and wait for people to get dropped. It's important to consider people other than your "frontline fighters." Not everyone wants to be a stickjock, and you have to create a game where everyone can be useful in the role they want to play. Not saying that Exiles is 100% effective in that, but just explaining some of the thought behind things.

    Going along with this is the lower damage for firearms. Well, if you have people, as in Exiles, buying more body and weapon skills, you shortly have people able to deal and take more damage than a gun does. You can't increase gun damage, mostly - but you can theoretically increase your melee damage forever. And you can buff it by adding effects (such as stun, etc). In Exiles, you get a lot of skill points per event - about 15, which for the right class can translate to +5 damage every event. Skills cost the same all the way up, so also it's important to think about the higher level. As Bill said, you get a sword larp in cowboy hats :)

    I'm not opposed to talking about changing things up, reducing stun time, etc. I just think it's important to kind of understand the overall mechanics to start with. Or at least understand the thought behind it. Same with Wastelands - I think before you can really understand the overall of a game you have to play it at least a couple times. :) There are things, such as in-game economy, which you won't read much about in the rulebook that can impact how effective things like guns are.

    In the end, though, putting guns into a larp just makes it different. And maybe it's not everyone's cup of tea, that might be true! But keep bringing up suggestions to the people running the games since they do just want to make them better.

  10. Take downs are very common in all games, the scaling is always more complicated with takedowns involvded which is why they are limited as resource skills. I agree guns should be dangerous, this can be reflected through damage. I will concede that it is not the goal of gun combat larps to degrade into NERO fights, guns should be kept at an effective level. Takedowns should be a limited times per day resource skill, even in a game as takedown heavy as NERO most players are limited to their spell tree in takedowns. I have a pretty good grasp of mechanics. I have played larps that have low hitpoints, I have played larps that have location based damage. I have played larps that have no takedowns. I can tell you that from my perspective as a person who reads a lot about larps and how to make them better, there is a sweetspot between takedowns and not takedowns. Location based and single hit larps have very short combat sequences which is fine if teh goal is to portay an incredibly deadly game. Unfortunatley those games work better as one shots because building a character and then havinghim die immediately is not really fun. Exiles handles this concept wonderfully with two different experience pools. I still think that the game would be MORE fun if the combat was slightly more protracted and the amount of time a player spent on the ground was shorter.

  11. One thing that we do in Wastelands to counteract the sting of risking permanent death, is make starting PCs slightly tougher than the baseline of most other LARPs. If you want to create a character that takes two, or even three shots to put on the ground, you can do it in our system straight out of the gate.

    It'll mean that you won't start with some of the really interesting little skills, but you CAN do it.