As most of you know, I was hired as the Head Writer for Dead Legends LARP earlier this summer. We’re going into our third season and, while head writer means that I’m handling a lot of plot work, it also means that I’m doing most of our story staff management and training. Therefore, I put together a little manual for our storytellers, especially the newer ones. I then realized it might be helpful to the world at large. While these are methods I want my staff to consistently use, the ‘your mileage may vary’ warning applies to everything. These are mainly geared towards weekend immersion LARPs who have non-player characters on shifts. Also, giving credit where it is due, I learned a good chunk of this as a storyteller for Dystopia Rising: New Jersey way back in the day. I had the luck of being on their staff early-ish on, when Michael Pucci was still directing. He trained me as a young storyteller just coming into the world of weekend immersion gaming in 2012/2013. While I’ve changed, adapted, and grown my own style since then, a lot of his early words gave me the background I needed to become a great storyteller.
(Glossary of terms for people coming from outside this style of gaming:
- Module or Mod: A single unit of plot that often has a beginning, middle, and end even if it’s tied into a bigger story.
- PCs: Player characters. These are who the players portray most of the time in the story and staff has very little control over their actions or decisions. This is also who we are supposed to be entertaining, making the heroes or the center stage people of the weekend.
- NPC: Non-player character. These are characters which inhabit the world around the players, often portrayed by players or staff.
- NPC Shift: In many games, players are mandated to do a 4 hour shift as NPCs as a way of giving back to the community and supporting plot for other players. During this time, the players completely drop their character, change costumes, and are beholden to the direction of story staff.
- Storyteller: A game writer who creates the plot for the story that weekend. While they don’t always write the previously established setting of the game, they are empowered to write characters, factions, and long term plot within the bounds of the setting and genre.
- Story Shift: A six hour shift where a storyteller is specifically in charge of the plot and organizing NPC camp/ops/logistics.
- Ops/Logistics/NPC Camp: The centralized, off-game area where NPCs and staff organize. This area normally holds all the costuming, props, and make up for the weekend. Players are generally to remain out of this area as to not spoiler themselves on upcoming plot.
- Face NPC: A reoccuring NPC, often played by staff, that has bigger implications to plot and usually is more empowered in the game world.)
Storyteller Guidelines and Recommendations
(At least) 1:3 NPC to Player Ratio: When writing plot, storytellers should keep in mind an entertainment ratio of one NPC to every three PCs. Ideally, the goal is 1:5 or 1:8, but I recognize that’s quite difficult with certain types of mods. When you are writing, figure out how many people the plot might be able to hit and how spread around it can go. If you’re going to be able sweep in massive swaths of your game? Then feel free to send ten NPCs out on that big combat mod. If it’s a merchant who is only selling to 1-2 people, try not to send that many people out. There’s nothing worse than five NPCs being occupied by a single player for an hour while other players sit around bored. If you need to target a small group, try to write a second mod for that time which hits a lot more of your players and have them go out within the same hour. This recommendation is an average. You can send out a 1:1 ratio or even 2:1 ratio of plot requires it, but then make certain you are sending out plot which is going to hit a LOT more people around the same time.
Two Mods an Hour: Storytellers should endeavor to write and get out the door at least two plots an hour. They should each be different styles of storytelling (so, not two combat focused mods at the same time) and hit different areas of the game site. Plan for them to go out at different times, so you are sending some form of plot out the door every 30 minutes of your shift. You don’t have to send out everything personally if you plan it correct. If you are planning to not be in logistics for a while because you are directing story or playing a Face NPC, make certain you set up your assistants with what plots you want to go out, when, and make sure they have no questions before you leave.
Spread Writing Between Different Plot Types: Plot comes in a few very generalized types of categories. In our world, these tend to be either combat, economic, social/emotional, or political. Each shift should have a fairly equal mix of all these plot-types, even if a storyteller is better at writing for a certain kind (example: I’m a social/emotional writer, but I force myself to have at least ONE plot from each category for my six hour shift, just to entertain all types of players.)
- Combat: This module is specifically geared to get players moving, using weapons, and in conflict with a dangerous enemy. Sometimes this comes in big groups of roving monsters (Devil’s Own gang, zombies, a pack of wolves, etc.) and sometimes it’s a small handful of quite skilled bandits, thieves, or assassins.
- Economic: This module is focused on those playing the economic game. It can be merchants selling components for making gear; people looking to buy gear from players who have too much/aren’t being actively used by the player base; gamblers looking to play or set up some sort of game of economic chance; beneficial merchants selling brews, healing things, weapons, or things the town is lacking; or people looking to make financial deals (sometimes legal, sometimes not). There is always some sort of financial exchange with these mods and they are often social in nature. However, being that there is money on the table, these mods can turn combative easily, so your NPCs should be prepared to defend themselves and have some sort of physical stats/weapons.
- Social: These mods are specifically written to pull on the heart-strings of player. Often they can be inspired directly by players’ backgrounds. These sorts of mods should specifically examine emotional investment the players currently have in the game and plot. Where are people putting their energy? Towards their countries, their families, their romance, their religion? Something else? See where a player is putting emotional energy and then write a mod that either mirrors that (so the player can sympathize and get directly involved), that challenges it (make a player question their own morals/ethics), or threatens something players are emotionally attached to.
- Political: In the world of Dead Legends, we have countries to which the players owe allegiance. Political mods usually deal with how those countries are interacting with each other and challenge people’s loyalties or give them specific missions (spying, resource gathering, etc.) to support their politics. This type of mod can be extended to greater games, though, when examining the ruling structure of any setting and providing things that either challenge or support that structure.
Avoid NPC-Theater: All plots should be directly interactive for the players. Any plot where the whole goal is for PCs to watch NPCs do something with very little interaction from the PCs, or ability for the PCs to have agency, in the scene should be generally avoided. This type of plot can be used VERY SPARINGLY for highly important exposition or long term plot effect, but will always need discussion with (and approval from) senior story staff. If you find yourself writing a general plot where PCs mainly just watch, try and figure out how you can make it more interactive. Get PCs involved in the execution of the plot, feed them information from NPCs and let them carry out the actual scene themselves, or steer your NPCs to directly pull PCs into the action of the scene. Players are here to have agency in the world and tell their stories in the setting we provide them, they are not here to attend the theater of just watching our ideas play out.
Give NPCs Agency: While storytellers generally have an idea of where plots should go and how things will end, if you can give your NPCs agency to make their own decisions on the ground, both players and NPCs will be able to tell a more vivid, real time, player driven story. Once more, we are here to give the PCs a world where-in they make the decisions and can be the main actors. If a PC takes a plot an unexpected way, NPCs who are given power to react to the decision and follow the new course will be able to more organically adapt to plot on the ground and build a better story with the players. When this happens, make certain your NPCs just know to give the storyteller a full report back about what different happened, so the storyteller can adapt future plans.
Story Staff Also are Players: This is controversial, but this is my rule for Dead Legends: Storytellers still have characters and get to play the game with the same level of involvemet as any player. When you are on shift, you are staff. When you are off shift, you get treated like a player with the same amount of attention, enjoyment, and focus as we give our regular players. As a storyteller, you are required to give six hours of your time per game, whether you are on a specific six hour shift or running overarc plot (where you might run it in pockets of 2 hour plots.) If you volunteer to run an overarc/weekend plot, which often involves extra work whether that’s the plan or not, you will be given the game after your overarc off to simply play your character and relax. Storytelling is a stressful job and storyteller burnout is an issue I see across all gaming communities. This rule is the best I can do to take care of our storytellers, to make certain they are still having fun, they feel a part of the community as a player (not just staff) and they get rewarded for hard work. This goes for all story staff, from witnesses all the way to head writers.
Minimize Idle NPCs: Unless a player is sick or injured, no one on their NPC shift should be sitting down more than 15-20 minutes between plots. Get the NPCs back in the door, instruct them to get water, food, and take a breather as needed, but immediately begin prepping to get them back out the door again. This will minimize your own stress of having a loud/over full ops, bored players, and keep the game rolling. Warning: there will always be NPC players who try to game the system to do little work (take extra long coffee breaks, dodge storytellers when plots are being sent out, refuse to go out on multiple mods in a row.) If you have a player like this, don’t force them on a mod, but the next time there is some quiet in ops and they are present, try to address the situation. Ask them what kind of mods they are comfortable playing and if there are any medical limitations you should take into concern before gently insisting that they go out on the next plot. Every player should put in their fair share when they are on NPC shift, according to their own abilities.
Plots Don’t Have to be Oscar Winners: At two plots an hour in a six hour shift, every storyteller should be writing 12 different modules per game. That might seem like a lot. But this number includes the idle, one-off, background mods as much as it does the big, intricate plots you build up over months. Once upon a time, I wrote a plot about a buck which had crashed into a covered wagon and tipped it over, just because I heard an insurance statistic that your car has a 1 in 82 chance of being hit by a deer every time you drive in Pennsylvania. All the players had to do was go out, pick up this ‘wagon’ off a guy, help heal his injuries, and they got paid. Simple and easy, just some background setting to the world, but it helped the players feel useful and it counted towards my modules for that month.
2-3 Plots Should Be Long Term: However, at least 2-3 of your plots should be part of a longer term story that players can watch build over the months. I keep a document of long term plots that I’m writing and update it with a few sentences after each game. Long term plots are actually a really convenient way for STs to help themselves with future writing in cases where the muse isn’t speaking to them. If you have long term plot running, then you have go-to ideas that are pre-formed and often are much easier to get on a page than writing plot out of thin air. Ideally, I recommend storytellers write up their long term mods as quickly after the previous game as possible, so they can respond immediately to player actions while it’s fresh in their heads and build plot from there.
1-2 Background Modules Per Shift: In Dead Legends, we have players submit backstories in very easy format with three plot hooks at the top of their background. These hooks are a way for players to easily flag the kind of plot they are interested in and, often, are pre-written plot ideas for storytellers to take and run. I’d like to reward the hard writing work of our players by each storyteller running at least one or two background plots per shift. Every storyteller has access to the google drive folder of approved backgrounds. Simply cross reference the list of BGs already taken, then find one open you like and pick it up for yourself, mark you have claimed that backstory on the list, and then write the module. When storytellers step down from staff, the player backgrounds will return to the general pool so they aren’t neglected, if there is still story to be run for that player.
Write Stat Cards in Advance: I’m very guilty of not doing this because I’m not great with stats, but any monsters, NPCs, or plots that you can put the stats for in advance in your plot notes, you should write in advance. This includes any loot/physical rewards the players are getting. That way, if you need to leave logistics, all the information is there for your assistants. You can also just hand them the plot write up and have them write the formal cards while you are doing things with other NPCs. The more you can write in hard information on your plot notes in advance, the easier it will be when you get into the chaos of logistics and running shift on the ground.
No Plan Survives and THAT IS OKAY: Even if you do everything mentioned above perfectly, things will change when it’s on the ground. Players will react to something unexpectedly, NPCs on a 30 minute module will end up out for two hours, your carefully written backstory plot will be for two players who end up not coming because they are sick, overarc (or another ST) will borrow half your NPCs for half your shift, or the camp will lose power. No storytelling ever goes smoothly and that is totally fine. If you don’t get through most of your modules, you can simply carry them over to the next game. Adapt to the situation on the ground, remember we’re all here to have fun, and that we are all on the same team. Ask for help if you need it. If you do those things, you’ll be in a far better place when the unexpected happens.