Author’s Preface: This article will focus primarily on the mechanics surrounding death and killing in one-shot theater-style LARPs.
Spoiler Alert: This article contains one minor spoiler about a mechanic in the weekend-long game Secrets of the Necronomicon.
Death in one-shot LARPs is simultaneously thrilling and boring. I don’t simply mean that it’s thrilling for the killers and boring for the killed (though that may sometimes be the case.) I mean that the threat of death, the looming possibility of paying the ultimate price for failure, can add a great deal of immersive suspense and excitement to a LARP experience. If, however, a LARP writer accepts the three axioms that 1) death is possible, 2) death is permanent, and 3) player characters can kill each other, they are then faced with a particular sort of problem. The player of a character who is killed early in the game has been denied the opportunity to play the rest of the LARP, possibly after investing significant time and money into their participation. In addition, characters who were closely connected to that character or reliant on that character for some portion of their game experience are now left without the benefit of that interaction, often through no fault of their own. How do we ensure that everyone gets the chance to play the game while also allowing for permanent character death as a meaningful consequence? There are many methods to resolve this conflict, each suited to different situations.
One of these methods is the so-called “kill moratorium.” At its essence, a kill moratorium is any rule or mechanic which prevents character death before a prescribed point in a LARP, after which character death becomes possible. This most often takes the form of a specific prohibition in the rules of the game, e.g. “Characters may not be killed until the final hour of game.” This resolves the conflict introduced above by guaranteeing that no one will be removed from play before they’ve had a chance to significantly interact with the game while still preserving some of the suspense and realism carried by the threat of death. The moratorium may or may not have some sort of in-world justification, such as the presence of NPC law enforcement or magical wards. Working the kill moratorium into your setting rather than keeping it an explicitly out-of-game conceit may seem to be the more immersive choice, but it is seldom that simple. As Fair Escape writes in their excellent blog post on the subject of death in LARPs, “when it seems as though the in-game justification should no longer apply (‘why can’t I just trick him into entering the privacy of my shop and kill him there?’ or ‘I don’t care if I get caught; it’s worth being arrested to kill this person’) then it can be just as immersion breaking…” (Fair Escape). Clearly, both approaches have issues, but only you can decide which one feels most appropriate for your game, if a kill moratorium feels appropriate at all.
There are other options, of course. The option to forbid killing entirely may seem both unrealistic and needlessly restrictive, but for many games it makes perfect sense. Small interpersonal games about the relationships between a group of friends or coworkers are an increasingly popular genre, and while there’s no simulationist reason killing shouldn’t be possible in these games (every kitchen has knives, at the very least) from a narrativist standpoint it would often go completely against the tone and themes of the game, not to mention being a poor way to accomplish most purely interpersonal goals from a gamist perspective. Instead of explicitly forbidding killing, most such games simply never mention it in their rules.
On the other extreme, the option exists to allow for killing at any time and making that explicitly clear to your players in game materials and game briefing. Three interesting yet entirely separate assumptions about community values can lead to deciding not to use a kill moratorium. First, there may be an assumption that players all accept the risk of dying very early in the game, and that any player who does die early has no real business being upset about it on an out-of-game level. Though it may be counter to the culture of some LARP communities, in terms of disclosure and setting expectations it’s difficult to find fault with this theory. When I played in The Prison at Intercon N, the game rules explicitly stated that the game focused on a group of people repeatedly voting for one among their number to be executed in a series of such votes, and that anyone might be executed at any point in the game and would not be able to rejoin the game until game wrap (Danilenko et al.). All of the players were on board with the conceit of the game and there were no problems. On the other hand, regardless of how clearly everyone thinks that they understood what they were agreeing to, I could still foresee a lot of unhappy players if someone with a very combat-effective character elected to go on a killing spree within the first five minutes of a game. This assumption, more than the following two, sides very clearly with our would-be mass-murderer in that case, which makes addressing hurt feelings and dealing with player complaints in a fair way that much more difficult.
Second, there may be an assumption that player characters will refrain from killing each other too early in the game out of a desire to allow everyone to enjoy a good chunk of the LARP—in effect, that players will self-impose a kill moratorium. This offers the advantage of not needing to impose a potentially immersion-breaking external rule, but the considerable disadvantage of failing to make behavioral expectations known to the players. If we want LARP to be a hobby accessible to new players and encourage different LARP communities to think and play together, I feel it is irresponsible for us to expect every new player or player with different community values to infer these expectations when the rules explicitly permit them to kill other characters. Voluntary forbearance in killing other characters early in the game may be seen as courteous in some circles but illogical and problematic metagaming in others—again, it is a matter of community norms.
Third, there may be an assumption that the nature of the characters-as-written and the setting are such that characters will act to interfere with other characters killing each other except in the most egregious circumstances, and will refrain from committing murders that are likely to get them caught except (again) in the most egregious circumstances. Indeed, theoretically, players with different community norms can hash out their differences entirely in-character, when one interferes with the killing blow of another and the two must discuss why another character does or does not deserve to die. However, as LARP writers, we must accept that players have free will and may interpret the characters they receive through a lens that does not match that of the writer. While I expect that many LARP writers would look askance at the player who decided that their explicitly pacifistic character should activate the doomsday weapon to exterminate all human life and thus bring an ultimate end to violence, it is a very difficult proposition (and beyond the scope of this article) to hash out the ethics of telling a player that their interpretation of a character is “wrong.” Thus, a well-crafted game must be robust to the possibility that a player will act against the motivations and values of their character as the writer(s) perceived them, up to and including unexpected killing sprees. Assuming that the characters and scenario are written such that early character deaths shouldn’t happen is not sufficient to ensure that they don’t happen.
Between the previous two options (no killing at all, or completely free rein) lies a spectrum of other solutions. The weekend-long game Secrets of the Necronomicon only has a brief combat moratorium on Friday evening, but additionally allows every dead character the option to return to play as a ghost with all their former knowledge intact (Balzac et al. 1991). These ghosts would now only able to speak to those characters with the special ability to hear ghosts, so there is some cost to dying, but it is greatly reduced. Many games allow a player whose character is killed to come back as a “recast” or backup character. In general, games that are larger in size, sillier in tone, or more free-form in plot can use this strategy to better effect than games that are smaller, more tightly plotted and/or feature lots of tight character connections. On one hand, being recast as a new character may allow a player killed early to still have a fun time participating in the game in a new way. On the other hand, it may be worse than simply going home if the recast character is not tightly integrated into the plots or interactions that they care about.
So, which options are used most often, and which option is best for your game? Indeed, in the process of writing this article, I became curious about how prevalent kill moratoriums were in the realm of theater-style one-shot LARPs. I went back though my own notes and materials from ten years of LARPing and tried to identify whether each game I had played in 1) had a kill moratorium, 2) did not have a kill moratorium, or 3) lacked any rules for killing other characters or explicitly stated that character death was not possible. Naturally, I acknowledge that this sample is haphazard and reflective of my own tastes and opportunities in LARP, so it is not truly representative, but I hope it might be interesting all the same. Of 109 one-shot theater-style games I have played, I was able to find rules information for 77 of them. Fifteen of these had kill moratoriums, 29 did not, and 31 lacked rules for killing other characters or explicitly disallowed it. This sample would suggest that kill moratoriums are common enough to be considered an established feature of LARP writing but are present in a minority of games overall.
Some readers may have noticed that only 75 out of these 77 games fell into one of my three categories. The remaining two took a different tack: killing another player character required the murderer to possess a special ability. Thus, killing is not an option for all characters, a tactic which allows GMs to manage risk when casting and minimize the potential scope of violent rampages. Indeed, this was only one of several interesting strategies for overcoming the difficulties inherent in allowing for the meaningful threat of death while also preventing untimely death from ruining players’ fun. The game Cracks in the Orb, a LARP set in Steven Brust’s Dragaera universe, includes a set of rules covering dueling (Fracalossi and Gabin). A unique feature of this game is that, while duels to the death are possible, they can only occur with the consent of both parties involved. Thus, characters cannot be killed without the players’ consent.
Another noteworthy mechanic comes from the weekend long game Torch of Freedom, a swashbuckling romantic adventure game set against the backdrop of an incipient revolution in a fictional European country (Villains by Necessity 2003). The game features a combat system full of swashbuckling flavor, but it disallows killing except in a combat that had been declared “Ruthless.” Only certain characters begin game with the ability to declare a combat Ruthless, and must expend one of a limited number of Ruthless cards each time they do so. Furthermore, no combat can be declared Ruthless before 1pm on Saturday, and ALL combats are automatically considered Ruthless on Sunday. By using multiple different controls on killing—a kill moratorium, requiring a special ability, and raising the stakes at the end of the event—the writers send a fairly clear message about the role they expect killing to take in the game. Before the last day of the event, killing can only be the work of Ruthless villains, but on the last day, any brave swordsperson with a score to settle or a desire to prove their worth in lethal combat has the opportunity to do so. So many restrictions on killing might be burdensome in another game, but in a game like Torch of Freedom that is so firmly rooted in a cinematic genre, rules enforcing the narrative conventions of that genre feel perfectly natural and contribute to the atmosphere of the game.
If nothing else, that should be the take-home message for readers of this article: whatever choice you make about killing will set the atmosphere of your game. Writers would be well-served to consider a kill moratorium not so much a tool for controlling the unpredictability of human nature as an opportunity to make a statement to the players about the tone of your game. Ask yourself if you feel your game needs rules for killing others before including them. In some cases, such as cyberpunk games or games in the World of Darkness setting, the reality of life being cheap and the ever-present threat of death are important facets of the game’s setting and tone. In other games, such as romantic comedies about dating or reunions of old friends in a mundane contemporary setting, killing is so at odds with the setting and tone that it should be disallowed entirely. For the rest that fall somewhere in the middle, GMs should consider what messages their rules documents are sending to the players about the acceptability of killing other characters. Remember that players are bringing their own personal and community values about the acceptability of killing other characters to the table, and if your rules present the mechanics for killing but remain agnostic about when it is allowable/appropriate, those values and norms will rule the day and situations will eventually arise where two sets of norms come into conflict.
As a final thought, I will present my personal favorite solution to resolving this conflict. This mechanic comes from Bitter Tears at Sad Mary’s Bar and Girl, a LARP about a bunch of strange people meeting in a fictional bar on a fictional island (Beattie and Walden). The game isn’t particularly combat-heavy but certainly allows for the possibility, using a simple rock-paper-scissors system to determine the winner in any round of combat and dealing damage based on the weapon used. On the subject of what happens when a character reaches zero hit points, the game rules say, “[o]nce she reaches zero hit points she goes unconscious. Any damage dealt to her after falling unconscious will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis by the GM, who will be trying to keep a balance between the fact that sitting out large portions of the game isn’t fun for the player doing so, and realism of what horrible injury will do to a person.” [sic]
In all the games I’ve played, this is the only time I can recall seeing this conflict explicitly acknowledged in the rules. Furthermore, the game officially states that the GM will be the arbiter of whether or not gravely injured characters die based on their assessment of the factors in play. I think this approach might actually be a widely applicable and very useful one, since it does not explicitly protect characters from lethal consequences or the theoretical threat of death, but does note that no one needs to worry about having their game ended prematurely due to another character’s decision to engage in potentially lethal actions. This, to me, seems to capture the best of both worlds.
Balzac, Stephen R., Charles A. Goldman, John H. O’Neil. Secrets of the Necronomicon. “Basic Rules.” 1991. 12–13. Live action role play game.
Beattie, Scott and Tonia Walden. Edited by Thorin Tabor. Bitter Tears at Sad Mary’s Bar and Girl. “Game Rules.” 1. Live action role play game.
Fracalossi, Lise and Bernie Gabin. Cracks in the Orb. “General Rules.” 2012. Web. Live action role play game.
Schreiber, Adina. “Though Shalt Not Kill.” Web blog post. Fair Escape. WordPress, 11 Feb. 2014. Web. 15 Sep. 2015
The Prison by Aleksandra Danilenko, Mariya Grubaya, and Sergey Kolesnikov. Produced by Christopher Amherst. Intercon N, Chelmsford, MA. 2014. Production of live action role play game.
Torch of Freedom by Villains by Necessity. “Player’s Guide.” 2003. 17. Live action role play game.
Matthew Kamm has been LARPing in New England since 2005. He has played (and written) primarily short-form theater-style games in that time, but now plays and serves as a board member for the boffer LARP campaign Witchwood.