(Featured Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.) As of late, I’m spending lots of time training young larp story staff so they don’t make the mistakes I did as a young larp organizer. This week’s blog very specifically applies to North American campaign larps, where you have a pool of volunteers that help play NPCs (Non-Player Characters) for you to direct out of Ops (Operations/Logistics, the area of game that is out of character and plot organization happens.) Managing an ops camp is one of the hardest things a larp organizer can do, especially untrained and if directing groups make a person nervous. The organizer has anywhere between 5-60 people looking at them for constant direction to entertain 30-300 people; the spaces are often cramped and loud; not all players want to be NPCs and are reluctant to do the work; players have differing levels of ability and people’s physical challenges must be remembered; and people playing their PCs often come in asking for plot help. Organized chaos is putting it mildly. So, I’ve put together a list of tips that I’ve learned in the year to help our young story staff manage ops a bit better than going in with no coaching.
Get Large Groups Out the Door: If you are managing a group of NPCs more than 10-15 people, always try to have one ‘large group plot’ on hand at any given time. These are your active threats — Bandits, zombies, goblins, etc — and can entertain much of the idle players around the larp by hitting many points in camp. These groups should have between 4-7 NPCs in them (scale up if you have a VERY large game) and simple to remember stats. An experienced staff member normally goes with them (witness/marshall or experienced player) to moderate if their stats are stronger or weaker depending on the kind of players they encounter. If you are putting a group like this together, focus on getting them in make up, in costume, assigning stats, and getting them out the door before anything else. Their stats should be enough that they will challenge players and they should have commands to hit several areas of the site — don’t waste the time putting a huge group like this together for them only to return to ops in 30 minutes.
Once they are out the door, then you can focus putting out your 1-2 people more social/economic mods, which take a bit more finessing in explanation. But also, ops will be far more quiet for having a chunk of your NPCs cleared and it will be easier to concentrate for everyone else left.
Direct Plot to Different Areas of Site: If your roaming threats are going to the far side of camp, direct the next NPCs you send out the door to the near side of camp. If NPCs aren’t given direction where to start their plot, most of them will start on the closest roadway to wherever ops is, then the players who are near to that position get ALL the plot. I normally take a map of camp and circle 3-4 big areas where players concentrate. I then cycle through these areas one at a time for every plot I send out the door before completing the loop and starting it again.
Time to Size of Plot Affect Ratio: The longer you are going to have NPCs out the door, the greater affect a plot should have. Example above — you are sending 5 NPCs out for 1 hour to play bad guys. That’s a lot of spent resources, make certain they hit a lot of camp to entertain the maximum amount of players. However, this also means if you are sending a hook to the FAR side of camp (30 minute walk away), they should be out there entertaining people for at least 45 minutes. It’s senseless to send someone on an hour of walking for a half an hour plot. Try to gauge how much affect your plot is going to have and if you are truly married to it being far out, see if you can add any elements to make it entertaining for a few more people.
Water is Life: For you, for your NPCs, for everyone. When you are directing ops, keep a bottle of water at your side at ALL points in time. You will be talking a lot and stressing more. Get to the point that drinking it is habit. If you are bad at remembering, tell NPCs to remind you to drink. Also, remind the NPCs to drink water when they come back from plots every time, and you drink when they drink. Sending an NPC to refill water containers, get cups, or do anything that helps water NPC camp is NEVER a wasted NPC and remember to do it routinely — especially in ops where there isn’t freely accessible water.
Go Out With Plot, but Prepare Backups: You are more than welcome to go out with your plots as a face NPC or staff moderator, but if you are going to leave ops for any large portion of time (longer than a water break), you need to prepare backup plot. Ops should never be left without a staff member holding down the fort. Whichever staff member is in charge when you go, look at the not-run plots in your staff folder, and give them a few they can send out the door in your absence. One should be a big group plot incase they have a LOT of NPCs sitting around bored, and 2-3 should be smaller plots just so they can keep game moving while you’re not present (even if they are lacking NPC numbers.)
Cards/Treasure/Items: Most games have some sort of items — these can be made by players, sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s components, etc. These things are given to players in reward for pursuing plot. Bandits/Bad guys might have basic loot on them, an economy/merchant plot might be selling an expensive, hard to make item. Prepare these cards ahead of time whenever possible and paperclip them to the plot page where they will be needed. If you can’t prepare ahead of time, get someone to help you writing them — writing cards is some of the BIGGEST downtime in any given NPC camp. When possible, reuse things that were brought back from other plots — the less cards to write, the less time wasted, and the less money you are using on printing more cards in the future. If you aren’t certain how to scale the amount of items which are given in reward, talk to a more experienced player or reference staff guides when possible.
End-of-Shift NPC Use: I see so many NPCs wasted during the last 30 minutes of their shift. Plot staff doesn’t wish to keep them over time and most plots are written longer than that. The usual solution is to have that NPC fold clothes, clean the makeup room, or organize props. You can only clean so much. Therefore, keep a few genre-enforcing NPCs on hand and send a player in for the last bit of their shift simply as a piece of town to enforce your setting. If it’s a gambling town? Send them in as a card player. If it’s a bar, put a drunk in looking for one last drink. Whatever theme you want to enforce, pick a random, low level kind of person for that theme and just send your NPC in for 20 minutes doing what any towns member would do. It will add life for your players and not let someone sit around idle.
Reluctant Players: There will always be 1-2 players who simply do not want to be there. Especially in games where NPC shifts are mandatory, this is the player who is always out smoking, hiding in the bathroom, not volunteering for a single mod, etc. There are many reasons players try to dodge doing the work and it’s not worth pressing it when you have big numbers to get out the door. However, when you have most of your NPCs, this is the time to gently go up to the player and say: “Hey, I noticed you haven’t been able to do many mods today, is there something going on?” If it’s a health issue, don’t push them but see what they are up to doing and get them on a gentle mod. If it’s a comfort with the mods issue, see what sort of npc they would be comfortable playing. We don’t ever want to bully a player, so if you can find time for this conversation it’s best, and see where you can coach them to being useful and willing to do their fair share.
Running Out of Plot: Sometimes, you simply don’t have anything to get out the door. You don’t have enough NPCs for what is left written, shifts are changing, or you just ran through everything too quickly. If you run out of plot, I recommend opening the book to the skills section and doing a quick scan of skills. Find one that is interesting and catches your eye. Then, write a quick little thing around that skill: either someone demonstrating its use, willing to teach it, or a thing that needs that skill to be solved and then a hook can go into town asking people to use it. You can use quick mods like this not just to enforce genre, but to remind players of rarely used mechanics and learn the system better yourself!
KISS aka Keep It Simple, Stupid: Ops is chaos and players can only hold so much information in their heads. When briefing plots, try to keep it as simple and clear as possible. A single motivation, a handful of stats, not much more. The more information you force a player to keep in their head, the more likely they are to forget and mix ups happen on the ground. There will be players who are lore/mechanics geniuses and have EVERYTHING memorized. You can use these players to play more complicated things if they handle it responsibly. But usually you want to keep your bigger group plots as simple as possible.
Repeat Back to Me: When sending a plot out the door, it’s worth having the NPC(s) repeat back to you the most vital information to the plot. Stats, goals, motivation, name or relevant PCs. Make certain they have retained all the important information you gave them before sending them out the door. If they miss something important, repeat it, and then have them go through the whole thing again. Reader and Larper Tiffany Jayde suggests that she keeps little index cards on her to write down particularly hard to remember stats or directives!
Take a Breath: Lastly, if you are feeling overwhelmed, it’s more than okay to take a breather. Tell any other staff member you need five minutes and walk outside, or somewhere quiet. Look at your phone a minute. Drink water. Organize your thoughts. Take the time you need to calm down and get your head back in the game without damning yourself for needing a break. We all need one sometimes, even those of us who have been doing this a decade. Ops will not grind to a halt without you for five minutes.
I know I missed things here and there are a plethora of excellent larp organizers on my Facebook. If you read this and have your own tips, please go to the comments section on the blog and add them for the public record! This entire piece is all about giving young larp organizers the tools they need to succeed in a growing, chaotic community. And, as ever, if you enjoyed this blog, please head over to my Patreon (https://www.patreon.com/spacebetweenstories) and consider joining the conversation there. For just a dollar a month, you get access to the insider view about game development updates and early access to all blogs. (And you support these things being written for the whole community!)