While common in live combat style larp campaigns, the use of crew to play GM-directed characters in theatre-style (parlour) larps is relatively rare in New Zealand. This article covers case studies of Kiwi games written over the past six years which use this powerful technique in different ways, and discusses the pragmatic, social, and artistic reasons why the use of adjunct crew is beneficial to the theatre-style genre.
It is a general axiom in New Zealand theatre-style larps that all participants should be roughly equal: King Cophetua may be a king golden and shining on his throne, but the Beggar Maid who’s wandering around in rags should be equally rich in nous, quirks, and engaging plot lines—what might be referred to as “everyone’s a star” and “there is no ‘main’ plot… there should be lots of plots, all of roughly equal importance” (Harbrow). ‘Colour’ characters, which are there to provide atmosphere or in some way be victims of the ‘main’ characters are generally frowned on, because roleplaying these peripheral characters for the duration of the larp can be dull for the players.1 Conversely, game crew who play very high-powered non-protagonist characters (NPCs) can consume the ‘oxygen’ of the larp and make it unfun for the protagonist characters (PCs).2 Most New Zealand-written theatre-style games default to basic design principles that fit in with this axiom: all players should have characters of roughly similar plot importance and general ‘busy-ness,’ and the characters and diegetic elements that are fully present in the game space for the two to three hour runtime are the ones that matter to the game.
This article is about Kiwi games that don’t fit in with this default—our emerging tradition of using NPCs and dedicated crew to make our game worlds richer, more complex—and more compatible with pragmatic game-running considerations. Much as Chekov announced that hanging a gun on the wall in Act One means it should be used in Act Two (“Chekov’s Gun”), choosing to incorporate adjunct crew into your game gives you a powerful tool that can and should be used in meaningful ways in the design.
There are some overseas games I’ve seen that use different PC/NPC models: for instance, horde games such as Victoria Junction—All change please, all change! (Barnard et al.) use the structure of a small group of characters who are permanent throughout the game, interacting with a large number of bit characters played by a revolving crew. Another model is to use highly directed non-protagonist characters to help the organisers manage the game, such as in The Dance and the Dawn, which uses the competing NPC roles of the Queen of Ice and the Duke of Ash to discourage cooperation between players (Tusk, “Cowardice of your Convictions” 63). To this toolkit, I want to add the use of live combat–style crew rooms which are coordinated in game by the organisers; the deliberate creation of minor NPCs for purely social reasons; and the artistic merits of solving technical design problems with NPC roles which physically embody the setting and game mechanics.
Despite my comments in the introduction, I actually like ‘colour’ characters—as long as they’re used mindfully; which is to say, they meet social needs first. At, Kapcon, the large annual roleplaying convention in my home town, we run a Saturday night flagship larp for somewhere around 60 players. Kapcon started life as a tabletop roleplaying convention and remains so—larps are welcome, but as a stream of the convention, not its reason for being. What this means is that we have a large pool of people who are friendly to the flagship larp and are perfectly fine with helping dress the set, or bringing their kids over in the evening to see the costume parade as larpers potter around getting into their costume and makeup, and, of course, taking on minor NPC roles to help out the organisers. This means that it’s easy to have ‘that one guy’ who likes to come along and play a door guard or minor helpful person in the game, because he enjoys the energy of big larps but is less keen on pursuing a character arc; it means that Al Shir-Ma (Melchior et al), a fantasy inspired by the Arabic story collection One Thousand and One Nights, was able to draw on a crowd of non-larpers to be rowdy, noisy crowd for the first half hour of its debut run to help settle the faction that entered the game through a marketplace (Wellington 2011).
This principle of creating roles for casual larp-friendly people is one that my sister and writing partner Catherine Pegg began using formally for Tesla’s Wedding (Pegg and Pegg). This is a light-hearted steampunk game that was originally created as a wedding gift for two young larpers in our community. The original design brief, which ambitiously wanted the game to be held on the day of the wedding,3 was to accommodate a number of friends and relatives of the bride and groom, and my sister created a special Hat Brigade group. In the game, these are assembled in a staging area away from the main game, with a selection of costume items (especially hats!) and nametags with high level character descriptors of various people in the town—each Hat Brigade nametag comes with a colourful name and a high-level descriptor (such as “Angelica Darling: Awkward; Adorable” and “Righteous Fred: Born to hang…”) One PC starts the game with a mailbag of letters to deliver at the start of the game which references some of these characters, and they also have a set of cards, the What’s Going On Outside deck, with random story prompts that they can draw for character ideas then bounce into the main space for a short period, before going back to the crew area to recast. These can be very random (“Beans! Beans!”) or more directly linked to the tone of the game (“Er, playing Cagliostro’s Concerto on a Glass Harmonica doesn’t really drive people insane… right?”).4 This group forms a nascent live combat–style crew to act under the game master’s (GM’s) direction, broadening out the world and allowing control over game pacing. They are able to introduce random elements, draw out plotlines from the main characters, and fill the functional need of “what to do when a player calls in sick”—the GM for the game has a pool of people who can either be promoted to main characters, or briefly costume as one of the no-shows and introduce game critical information as needed. If a lot of people call in sick (this happened in one run), you may lose your crew to character promotion, but casual NPCs are at least easier for a GM to fudge.
We continued the use of a small crew in the Kapcon flagship Fragrant Harbour, set in a marketplace in Hong Kong in 1899, which includes stories inspired by both the historical setting (for instance, colonialism and the opium trade) and traditional Chinese literature and mythology (for instance, ghosts, the search for enlightenment, Asian vampires, and the Bureaucrats of Hell) (Pegg et al.) The game has some prewritten skeleton character sheets set up in the offstage area—for townsfolk NPCs, there is general background and motivation and a lot of “Things You Know” for the NPC to introduce at their own discretion. There are also outlines for NPC members of The Society of Harmonious Righteous Fists (better known in the West as the Boxer Rebellion) to come into the game and be rowdy and recruit fighters to the cause; in the debut run (Wellington 2013) this made them available for the PC with ties to the Boxers to arrange for a small, planned riot that emerged out of the game play. And the game uses crew to create a priming event early in the game (two NPCs fight about a girl in the central marketplace area: one dies and demonstrates to the players that character death is both possible and not the end of the game for them, then moves to the starting area for deceased characters to start making a fuss there and demonstrating the Ghost rules). Near the end of the game, there is a March of the Dead, a ceremony with some pomp and solemnity which draws all current Ghost characters out of the larp area in a grand procession that sends them on their way to Heaven or Hell depending on what in game actions have happened for each character. This gives them a bang to exit the game with, and the existence of the crew lets the players of now permanently dead characters return into the game as NPCs to observe the final flurry of activity prior to game close.
And we have found that “come along and crew for my game” can be attractive to our friends on the more introverted side of the scale, who don’t enjoy the intensity of main characters. They get to participate in our enriching hobby at the level they’re comfortable—and bring their own richness into our games.
For the Fragrant Harbour debut, we also asked an experienced roleplayer to take on a specific NPC role for the entire game, a senior functionary to run the Anteroom of Hell, bully the player characters who started there or arrived during the game, take bribes, and maintain the area for incoming Ghosts. To help him, the character receives “Karma Files”5—a listing of the current characters and various in-character notes about their current and former lives; these can be used for reference or to allow other players to sneak glimpses as a way to seed information into the game. By creating this character with a fully outlined character sheet, but the expectations of “you are an NPC,” we can ask that roleplayer to remain static in the location to help meet the needs of the larp. A similar approach has been taken by Jenni Dowsett in The Silver Kiss of the Magical Twilight of the Full Moon, a comedy parody of the supernatural teen romance genre. The game is written with four crew slots, three of which are in-character for the duration of the game. These NPC roles have specific purposes—priming the game by sharing information and secrets and being very over the top characters for the PCs to react against, and, in the case of the Principal, acting as an authority figure when needed. One of the NPCs is swapped out near the end and recast to enter the game as a new character ready to have a big dramatic scene and “to spur the various mortal characters in the game to consider what [are] the best life choices they could be making” (Sands). This staged scene isn’t the finale, but it sets the tone for what the endgame should feel like for the players—it defines the stakes for them; overall, the NPCs act to reinforce the themes and atmosphere of the game.
This ‘NPC as Game Manager’ model is similar to that in The Dance and the Dawn and relatively underused in New Zealand (it’s more common here for the GMs to observe the game and referee rules or answer questions without interfering; either out-of-character, unobtrusively in-character, or briefly taking on solo NPC roles themselves to introduce information before returning to the out-of-character referee role.) From my experience as both GM and player, it’s an effective technique. Talking about Silver Kiss, the author mentioned an occasional downside where “the crew gets a bit too wrapped up in the role or messing with players and start making things about themselves” but added that over multiple runs this had been rare (Sands). And it’s something that can be handled by expectation management and selecting crew members whose play style prefers the dramatic to the competitive.
Matt Brunton, an experienced GM of both live-combat and theatre-style games, uses crew to help pace his games, for example, in The Heat at 3 AM, an intense Noir game about criminals the night after a big job went badly. In his view, “games that rely solely on the players developing drama or getting plot out there have a greater chance of misfiring” (Brunton). His techniques in Heat are similar to those he would use in a weekend-long live combat game—using crew members to appear as cameos to make sure necessary information is in the game (as insurance for player no-shows), and to gauge tension and drama in the room and nudge the game with plot points and named characters relevant to the protagonists, giving them something to react against. Commenting about the game, he has a preference for using external intervention in the mid-game, leaving the first 15 minutes free for players to get into character and form relationships, and the final phase free for final decisions and story resolutions.
Another serious game, Wilkinson-Baker Hall, a Great War upstairs-downstairs drama set in a Downton Abbey–esque great house, introduced a crew room on its second run (McKenzie-Doornebosch and Melchior). The first run (Wainuiomata 2013) was staged at a larp convention in a large hall with the separate areas of the game divided by partitions, and the two GMs playing all visiting NPCs. This provided some challenges—there were at most two NPCs at a time, costume changes were limited to signifying objects (hats, shawls, aprons) and were played by women regardless of the identified gender of the character, and if a player wanted follow-up contact with an NPC, there were limitations—should the GMs change their plans for the next appearance, or use a ‘telegram’ or ‘phone call’ conversation as a proxy? In the second run (Petone 2016), held at a vintage villa, the game was spread out on two floors of the house in multiple rooms. For straight logistical reasons, there needed to be additional people taking on NPC roles—it would take too long for two people to manage costume changes with rushing up and down stairs in the more diffuse game space, and the organiser made the addition of a dedicated crew of five people really count. In the redesign, the crew is run by a Crew Coordinator who has a lot of knowledge of the game, briefs outgoing NPCs, and takes their feedback on what has happened while they were in-game to gauge which NPCs should go in next. The crew has extensive documentation: a detailed crew briefing and another document which has a paragraph of the key points of each PC and prewritten NPC in the game. They also have generic nametags for background NPCs (‘soldier,’ ‘villager,’ etc.) and are able to print out new nametags for characters generated on the fly. The primary goal of the NPCs (approximately 20 named characters) is to increase pressure on the players. The investigative characters get support from “people they know,” who can appear with information of use to them, and the PCs who have something to hide have to be more aware of people asking leading questions:
If the journalist PC couldn’t be everywhere at once, or was struggling to wade through the lies that various characters were telling, then instead of those other characters getting to [breathe] a sigh of relief that they’d ‘gotten away with it’ and never have questions asked of them for the rest of the game, we could insert crew characters from the journalist’s own newspaper who’d received ‘leads’ about various stories, and help prompt that journalist to look deeper in a specific direction. (McKenzie-Doornebosh)
The additional people supporting the game are also able to increase the verisimilitude of the game—in the Petone 2016 run, they were able fully costume to go with the vintage location and immersive set dressing—and they play a variety of incoming people: highborn guests, tradespeople bringing supplies to the house, the ill or injured arriving in the Infirmary requiring care (another source of pressure for the medical staff, who have a choice between pursuing personal issues and doing their jobs), and they are able to flit in and out of the game as needed, or take a longer dwell time to suit the mood of the scene and allow a greater rapport to develop between PC and NPC. In some cases, players have ‘locked on’ to an NPC as a friend and ally, and kept in touch throughout the game. Another design change, two act breaks of time passing, allows players to make offers (perhaps requesting information from the War Office, or sending telegrams requesting an NPC visit, or narrating in between actions) which the crew are able to facilitate.
My sister’s and my recent game Break Room 3: Basilisk Green (a humorous take on the question ‘what do Wandering Monsters do on their tea break?’ in a D&D-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off dungeon) has continued the use of crew rooms, partly for pacing but also to create the outside world breaking into the protected space of the larp (Pegg and Pegg). We took learnings from Tesla’s Wedding and Fragrant Harbour and created crew briefing information to help them be as self-directed as possible. In addition to a verbal briefing, the crew are provided with a summary of all the plotlines in the game and single page outlines of suggested encounters.6 These have specific hooks to the characters; give some NPC names, abilities and motivations; suggested timeframes; and relevant props. The crew have considerable discretion and the general guideline of ‘get in there and make trouble.’ The design asks for a proportionately larger group compared to the crews of Tesla’s Wedding and Fragrant Harbour (Basilisk calls for a crew of three to five against a PC contingent of 17; its precursor games were setting mini-crews of five against a PC contingent of 30 and 80), so they have more impact on the game play. This suits the Joyful Chaos tone of the game—the PC group are working through their interpersonal intrigues but have frequent injections of ‘what the heck just happened?’ that might be specific to them, or available for them to witness. It also allows many emergent plotlines to arise in the game: players can request specific characters they know about to visit the Break Room; and the crew are able to respond to PC actions without needing GM direction. An example of this is from the April 2017 run in Wellington:
[early in the game, some minions are bothering their Boss on her coffee break]
Minions: Boss, boss, the supply clerk sent us syrup instead of Alchemist’s Fire.
Long Suffering Boss: [sighs] Take the syrup, pour it on some adventurers and then, I don’t know, lick them or something.
[later in the game, a group of Surface Adventurers storm into the room with unfinished business and complaining about the day they’ve had]
Adventurers: And then some monsters covered us with syrup and licked us!
[the staff in the Break Room follow this up by trying to recruit the Adventurers to the cause of Evil.]
This is not a plotline that it would have occurred to me to write into this game or any other, but I’m thoroughly glad it happened.
This final section discusses two larps that were written to challenge the boundaries of the form, and had contrasting design issues that the use of NPCs solved. As is usually the case, embracing the Big Flaw in your design usually takes you to interesting and elegant solutions, and these games are no exception.
Into the Woods is a dark fairy tale inspired by Harvey’s and Samyn’s video game The Path: in the larp, Lost Child characters get lost in the wood and continue wandering until they find a resolution with the Wolf they both fear and are fascinated by (Pegg and Pegg). The characters are written as protagonist/antagonist dyads and, because of the premise of the game, any given pair can be dropped out of the game but an individual player calling in sick at short notice is going to cause serious problems. The solution was to create NPC slots, in this game called Wood Sprites—if we have a no show, we can either promote up a Wood Sprite into the protagonist part, or we can recast the orphaned protagonist into a Wood Sprite.7 This early design choice influenced the rest of the game—in addition to providing unobtrusive characters for the GMs to play and adding atmosphere (mischievous creatures popping out of the woods to giggle and tease the players), the Wood Sprite crew members are used to control the game movement.
Another design choice is that the players should keep walking throughout the game, partly to stop a big clog of people observing a scene with other people instead of focusing on their own interactions, but mostly because I wanted them to feel tired, with all the physical and emotional feedback that brings. The players are given this instruction, but still have had the urge to congregate and stop moving—the Wood Sprites have a game call “Push-Me-Pull-You” to remind the Lost Child characters to follow them. There is also a game rule that the Lost Children have to stay with someone with a black headband. In the first phase of the game, this means the Wood Sprites can lead them on a tour of the game space and make sure they encounter each Wolf at least once. After this, the game stages a tilt event8 where everyone gathers together for a rest and food break, and the Wolf characters change the tone of their interactions to more conciliatory (as antagonists they are given more GM-direction than the protagonists).9 At this point, the Wood Sprites become less active guides and let the Lost Children begin splitting up, choosing their own paths, and having more independent and intimate conversations with their partners. It has been a useful feature to have the additional people nudging the flow of an unusual game into the desired story groove.
The Bell, an amnesia game set on a broken spaceship in the ‘space travel as spiritual journey’ genre, had very much opposite design issues (Pegg and Pegg). I wasn’t worried about people dropping out because I’d designed the game to be very flexible on player numbers. What I did need to do is account for character deaths from a very early stage in the game. One of my design criteria was that the game should be high stakes from the moment the characters wake up—there is a lot of information on how to fix the ship in the game; the question is “what are you willing to sacrifice to make that happen?” and the setting allows no way for everyone to get home safely. The conflict mechanic is very simple and brutal (if you ‘attack’ someone, they are automatically injured; if you attack someone enough times, the character dies), with the intent that in the confined space and stressful setting it will encourage the feel of a claustrophobic horror movie where the external threat pushes internal conflict.
Which brings me to: what if the players in this game are very aggressive from the beginning of the game? I didn’t want a deceased PC to have to walk out of the room, so I created the role of Revenant—a gruesome setting detail is that the ship can cannibalise dead passengers and wire them into its navigation system as a jury-rigged repair; the Revenants preserve some memories from life while co-opted to the needs of the ship. This got rolled into the writing: things like speculation on what other technologies are enough like the human brain to pass; what happens when the Revenant who is present at the beginning of the game is someone close to a PC; and what does it mean to be human, anyway? To give more complications, the Revenants navigate the ship through hyperspace (popularly called “Heaven”) which is inimical to people going outside—the player group can send one trained person outside to fix life support, knowing that they will die, or they can kill the Revenant and drop into normal space, fix things at their leisure and take a century to reach their destination, adding conflict based on how badly each character wants to get home on time.
It has also given rise to a lot of emergent plots in the different runs of the game. In one run (Auckland 2016), the players were happily volunteering themselves to become Revenants in the first act—until they realised they were going to have roleplay murdering each other and had serious second thoughts. In another (Wainuiomata 2012), the player group tried hard to preserve the memories of the prewritten Revenant with tears and goodbyes all round; in the debut run (Auckland 2011) this Revenant was killed off very quickly and quite callously and the player group tried hard to find a solution with least loss of life—until the final act turned into a bloodbath. The end game phase involved four deceased characters emotionlessly repeating the status changes of the ship, picking up on what each was saying in a continuing loop. To me, the GM of this run, this was eerie. In the Christchurch 2014 run, the organiser sent feedback about the extremely complicated, last minute shenanigans involving betrayal and murder to create a new Revenant so that the two final characters could end the game blissed out on the sounds of Heaven (Cohen). What began as a practical choice to solve a design problem deeply informed the themes and planned plotlines of the game—and it has opened up a multiplicity of emergent stories: each run of The Bell is utterly unique.10
There are very many ways to write a good larp (that is, meeting the participants’ needs for entertainment, meaning, and social contact.) A friend has described the act of writing a theatre-style larp with the Chekov’s Gun metaphor: put “a lot of big, shiny, sexy guns on that mantelpiece, and make sure there are more than enough to go round. Then throw in a few knives and hand grenades for good measure” (Harbrow). This article has discussed the ways in which the mindful use of NPCs forms an armoury of Chekov’s Guns: the colour characters, the game managers, the bursts of the outside world breaking into your larp’s magic circle, defining the stakes and setting the tone, physically embodying the game mechanics… That armoury is worth polishing up, carefully priming with black powder, and firing at will.
Barnard, Nickey, Jerry Elsmore, Alex Jones, Sue Lee, Tym Norris and Mark Steedman. Victoria Junction—All change please, all change! 2009. Live action roleplay game.
Brunton, Matt. The Heat at 3 AM. 2015. Live action roleplay game.
Brunton, Matt. Private email. Sent 9 May 2017.
“Chekov’s Gun.” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chekhov%27s_gun. Accessed 4 May 2017.
Cohen, Daphne. Private email. Sent 17 Jun. 2014.
Dowsett, Jenni. The Silver Kiss of the Magical Twilight of the Full Moon. 2011. Live action roleplaying game.
“GMs are bastards.” Diatribe, http://diatribe.co.nz/t/gms-are-bastards/7387. Accessed 6 May 2017.
Fatland, Eirik & Lars Wingård. “The Vow of Chastity.” Dogma 99, 1999, 2000. http://fate.laiv.org/dogme99/en/. Accessed 9 May 2017.
Harbrow, Malcolm. “A KapCon LARP Manifesto.” 25 Jul. 2009. http://homepages.inspire.net.nz/~idiot/gaming/larpmanifesto.html. Accessed 7 May 2017.
McKenzie-Doornebosch, Hannah and Sophie Melchior. Wilkinson-Baker Hall. 2013. Live action roleplaying game.
Melchior, Sophie, Ellen Couch, and Dale Elvy. Al Shir-Ma. 2011. Live action roleplaying game. Published by Imaginary Empire.
Morningstar, Jason. Fiasco. Bully Pulpit Games, 2009.
Pegg, Catherine and Stephanie Pegg. Tesla’s Wedding. 2012. Live action roleplaying game. Published by Flying Monkeys. Debut run used the name Perambulate We Merrily.
Pegg, Catherine, Stephanie Pegg and Ellen Boucher. Fragrant Harbour. 2013. Live action roleplaying game.
Pegg, Stephanie and Catherine Pegg. The Bell. 2011. Live action roleplaying game. Published by Flying Monkeys.
Pegg, Stephanie and Catherine Pegg. Into the Woods. 2012. Live action roleplaying game.
Pegg, Stephanie and Catherine Pegg. Break Room 3: Basilisk Green. 2015. Live action roleplaying game.
Sands, Jenni. Private email. Sent 4 May 2017.
Harvey, Auriea and Michaël Samyn. The Path. Tale of Tales. tale-of-tales.com/ThePath. 18 Mar. 2009.
Tusk, Warren. “The Cowardice of your Convictions”, Game Wrap, vol. 1, 2016, pp. 58-63, http://gamewrap.interactiveliterature.org/vol1/GameWrapVol1.pdf. Accessed 6 May 2017.
Tusk, Warren. The Dance and the Dawn. 2006. Live action roleplaying game.
Stephanie is a New Zealand larper who has been playing, organising, and writing larps since 2003. She’s interested in the deep structure of how larps work, as well as having an uncomplicated time doing the pretty pretending to be someone else. Her published games are available from DriveThruRPG: http://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse/pub/3687/Flying-Monkeys.
For instance: “Colour Characters are those who exist (in my head) to be there for the main characters to get something from, or kill, or just to wander around the periphery of the game and look pretty.” (user QueenOrTart) and “The reason to avoid them is that they have nothing to do, and that makes for dull larping. Even a player who doesn’t want to play a mover-and-shaker should still have things to do that will keep the player entertained and interacting.” (user Ryan_Paddy) in the discussion “GMs are bastards.” ↩
I prefer to expand out these acronyms as Protagonists and Non-Protagonists (instead of Players and Non-Players) to emphasise the storytelling function of the characters, as opposed to the physical person playing the part. In this article, I will be referring to participants who roleplay as PCs as players or the player group, and people who roleplay as NPCs as crew. ↩
In the end, tradition won and the debut larp was its own separate event. ↩
Pegg, Catherine and Stephanie Pegg. Tesla’s Wedding. 2012. “Nametags” and “What’s Going On” deck. ↩
Pegg et al. Fragrant Harbour. 2013. “Karma Files.” ↩
Pegg and Pegg. Break Room 3: Basilisk Green. 2016. “GM Cheat Sheets” and “Crew Cheat Sheets.” ↩
Ironically, the two runs of this larp have been the extremely rare instances in my GMing career where we had a full turnout with no last minute replacement players. ↩
That is, a scheduled event that causes the game to have a major change in tone. This term is adapted from the Tilts used in the Fiasco story game by Jason Morningstar. ↩
The rest break is another pragmatic choice (the need to let mobile players sit down and get some calories and water) that turned into an artistic device. That sense of relief of “and now I can sit down” gives the Wolves a good opening to renegotiate their relationships, and they are directed to offer food or drink to their Lost Child as a signifier of this. ↩
With regards to spoilerability and the amount of detail I’ve provided for The Bell—I really dig the Dogma 99 principle of open documentation (Fatland and Wingård): this game runs well with people who have played it before or read the game. (Obviously, the Dogma 99 strictures against GM control during the game and ‘superficial action’ are less relevant to my writing style.) ↩