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Bag o' Nifties: Tricks for GMs

LARP Combat - The Fast and Easy Way

by Dan Bayn
Apr 09,2003


LARP Combat - The Fast & Easy Way

The Problem

It's five minutes before the end of your live-action convention game, and you need one last favor from a co-conspirator. You march briskly across the room, scanning the crowd. Finally, you spot her in the far corner, at the center of a tangled mass of agitated players and crumpled character sheets. To your horror, you spy a GM standing beside her, his head snapping back and forth like a ping-pong ball at an all-ADHD table tennis tournament. That's right, she's in the middle of combat.

"Nooooooo!!!!!!" you scream into the night, but your cries fall on the deaf ears of an uncaring god.

Nothing brings a LARP to its knees like mass combat. All around, events are passing in real-time, and the combatants are locked in a turn-by-turn resolution cycle that stretches 15 seconds of firefight into 15 minutes of waiting for the GM's attention, looking up numbers on an arcane character sheet, and tracking tiny dice as they roll across that big, conference room floor. If allowed to drag on, even a fight between two characters will suffer from a crippling distortion of game time. It's painful for GMs, tedious for combatants, and death for anyone outside the fight who needs to talk to a combatant.

The solution is abstraction. The micro-managed approach to combat taken by table-top games just doesn't fly once you've walked away from said table. You need to gain some altitude, take the 35,000 foot view, and roll as few dice as possible. This is how I do it...

The Solution: Dan's 3-Step Program

First, a few caveats: This method works best with grainy systems. By "grainy," I mean that the difference between one skill or stat value and the next is relatively large, so that there is a significant difference between characters of different levels. That goes for modifiers, too. In fact, you should avoid modifiers in LARPs whenever possible, since they take time and no one really cares. Well, I don't care, anyway.

As should be obvious, all of this assumes your LARP is a political, interaction-based game where hand-shaking and back-stabbing take center stage. Boffer LARPs, where combat is one of the primary activities, are a whole different breed. It should be an easy distinction to make: If the pace of combat is interfering with your enjoyment of the game, you can probably benefit from the 3-Step Program.

Step 1: Compare Stats

Don't let each combatant roll their own actions, and never let each combatant roll for both attack and defense. I'm tellin' ya, there's just no time for all that formality. Instead, you should split everyone involved into coherent sides and make them articulate their goal (capture that guy, grab that thing-a-ma-jigger, kill 'em all, whatever). Compare the combat-relevant stats of each character, then decide which side has the advantage and how significant that advantage is: slight, significant, or overwhelming. If no side has a clear advantage, declare them evenly matched and move right along...

Step 2: Let It Roll

Now, resolve the entire mess with a single roll. The side that has the advantage should make the roll (or the GM can make one on their behalf), and the degree of advantage should determine the target number, success level, or whatever else they need to win the fight. By "win the fight," I mean "achieve their stated goal." Again, it's best to have a grainy system, where it's easy to tell the difference between a Big Win, a Barely Scraped By, and a Totally Got My Ass Kicked result.

My house system, Flip, uses an extremely grainy coin flipping mechanic. Character traits are rated on a 1-5 scale, which means that even a difference of 1 level should have a significant effect on the chance of success. Evenly matched characters flip a coin, so each side has even odds of winning. Each level of difference gives the advantaged side one re-flip, and a single "heads up" result is all they need. Someone at a slight disadvantage has about a 25% chance of pulling off an upset, and someone at a significant disadvantage has about a 12% chance of weaseling out of their dire fate. Overwhelming odds aren't even worth flipping coins for. Everyone knows what they're good and bad at, and we don't waste much time with math.

Step 3: Acting!

Now comes the fun part. (Hopefully, it didn't take you too long to get here!) Tell all involved parties which side achieves their goal and let them role-play their own way to that pre-ordained result. Firefights, fisticuffs, and duels all run much smoother when everyone goes in knowing what the outcome must be. Of course, you may want to impose the traditional LARP constraints of "No Running," "No Touching," and so forth, but these things are always more fun when players can ham it up.

This system would work great for a western-style gun duel. The GM and players would make the roll in secret, then the players would walk out in front of their audience and act-out the showdown. The rest of the players wouldn't find out who lost until somebody drops dead. There's your drama!

To recap:

  1. Split the combat into "sides" and compare each side's combat stats to determine which has the advantage.
  2. Roll those dice (or draw those cards, or flip those coins).
  3. Tell everyone which side wins, and turn 'em loose!

It's disgustingly simple, but that's just the way I like it.

A Note on Unbridled Cowardice

Though it nearly doubles the time needed to resolve a fight, it's often a good idea to follow the advice of's patron saint, Sandy Antunes. He advises LARP GMs to give the losing side of a fight a chance to back out after the initial roll. This is especially good if both sides were evenly matched, since chance has so much power in such circumstances. To paraphrase: After the roll, ask the losing side if they'd like to retreat, giving up their stated goal for a chance to deny the other side theirs. If they would, conduct a second round of combat, with the same 3 steps as the first round. If the losers win, they manage to break off and flee, tails tucked firmly between their legs. Don't let the other side pursue them, either. Such an attempt is assumed, and already proven unsuccessful by the second roll.

Next Time: Running Adventures in The Matrix! - Loath Your Fellow Man

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Bag o' Nifties by Dan Pond