Call it magic, call it skills, or call it technology, it all boils down to one thing in larp. A way for players to break the rules of the game which is enjoyable and evokes the setting. Whether the game you’re building is sci fi, high fantasy or modern horror you’ll probably need some game mechanics beyond combat. Especially if you want to build a game which is not explicitly combat focused. Whatever your theme is, we’re going to talk about what is called Magic in a fantasy larp.
What if I don’t want Magic?
First a bit more of a clarification. I’m using the word ‘magic’ because I’m writing from a fantasy/high fantasy point of view. This is a writing convenience, as that genre is one I’m familiar with. Your game may be set in a post apocalyptic wasteland, a space ship, or a horror movie. If that’s the case don’t call it ‘magic’. Don’t feel like you have to use the same words. Use the theme to alter the descriptors into something meaningful for your game.
From the game mechanics point of view magic is a set of abilities which allow the players to do extra ordinary things during play. The basic rules say if you get hit in the arm, you lose the arm. ‘Magic’ gives the arm it’s function back. Or prevents the damage in the first place. Maybe it adds armor, or removes the ‘broken’ status from existing armor. Powerful magic restores life to the dead, or animates and controls the corpses of the enemy.
Ultimately magic helps ease the consequences of rather brutal game play. Hit Location Larp tends to resolve very quickly. Too much down time can bore players. A generous amount of healing magic can get players back in the action quickly and keep an event holders game from being boring.
From a storytelling point of view magic should help immerse players in the game. It should aid in letting players feel like they inhabit a game world. Good magic systems bring players into the story of the world. Bad magic systems break verisimilitude, and players are dropped out of the moment. Really bad magic systems give the players tons of power, for little to no added benefit.
From the players point of view magic is kick ass! Everyone loves the strength to throw boulders, the immunity to cut/pierce damage, and the ability to thrown magic around and damage everyone. Players feel special when they get to break the basic rules. There really is a feeling of the fantastic that happens when a really good spell caster bestows a warding spell on you. You feel protected. It’s a tangible feeling of power. It is very important to make magic that enhances the drama and furthers the story. Fortunately that is very easy to do, when the players are in the right mindset.
As an event holder you want to make sure that when giving players rule breaking power, they give something back in return. Players who fail to add something to the game, should not retain that power. It will be very difficult for some players to understand this if you are not up front about why magic exists. Make sure that they know that to wield power in the game world, they have to add story, details, theme and enhance engagement for other players.
What can magic do?
Before providing a list there is something to go over. Keep in mind there are some things that magic should never do in this kind of larp. Do not include “instant death” effects. And never require players to point at their enemy as a way of targeting. Hit location games are based on skill. Those two types of spells remove skill from the game. Avoid them at all cost.
- Damage Spell – deals damage like a sword blow
- Movement Spell – allows movement through hindering terrain
- Clue/Hint Spell – provides information
- Repair Spell – removes ‘broken’ status from weapons/armor/etc
- Heal Spell – returns the use of limbs, powerful versions return players to life
- Prevent Damage Spell – provides immunity to certain kinds of damage
- Cure Spell – removes Poison/Plague effects
- Poison/Plague Spell – adds Poison/Plague effects
- Traps – a spell that waits for a trigger, then has some effect
- Curse – as well as providing some kind of negative effect, also prevents an item from being removed by the player
What does magic need?
Before you allow players to go breaking the rules willy nilly, you need to set up some ground rules for how magic functions. In tabletop RPGs being a magic user requires learned knowledge and practice. The same holds true in larp. Magic needs Components and gets sorted into power levels. Players must have the right components and must posses the right amount of arcane power for spells to work successfully.
Verbal components are what a persona has to say to cast a spell. The more powerful a spell the more a persona must say in order to cast the spell. A good rule of thumb is to pick a certain number of lines of text per power level. As a spell increases in power, it also increases in lines of text. A weak low level spell would require a single line of text. A powerful spell might need five.
The verbal of a spell also tells other players what is going on. This is extremely important. In combat it can be very hard to hear what is being shouted. A full line of verbal components allows all players to pick up on the spell being case. Maybe they don’t hear all of the verbal, but as long as they hear some of it, they can react accordingly.
Verbal length creates a fascinating tactical choice for magic users. In combat timing is everything. With Hit Location larp being fast paced combat a spell caster might opt for a weak but fast spell they know well instead of a more powerful spell which is difficult to cast. Watching a spell caster try and decide what to cast in the middle of combat is really fun. Well, fun for the marshals anyway.
Somatic components are what a persona has to do to cast a spell. They might have to stand a certain way, feet firmly planted or only one foot on the ground, etc. They might have to move their hands in a certain pattern. Or hold something aloft. This is a good opportunity for players to show off and act. Keep a wary eye on players who want to cast spells, but are unwilling to make dramatic Somatic Components.
Just like Verbal Components, Somatic Components should also become more involved as they become more powerful. The most powerful spells should be more like rituals which take preparation and theatrics to cast successfully. Be careful when creating spells with long Somatic Components however. They do not work well in combat, at all. Without proper preparation they can bog down the pace of an event. When in doubt err on the side of shorter, rather than longer. Unless your players really dig avaunt guard theater.
Material Components are the things which a persona must have on them or near them. Low level damage spells might require only the bean bag (a hand held and thrown bag, not a bean bag chair). High level spells might need exotic components. Any good role player will expect a quest or two in order to find rare material components. Reserve those items for the most powerful of spells.
So far this is by no means comprehensive, and is a very high level overview. The art of making a good magic system is about varying the aspects of magical spells and adding effecting themes. Always err on the side of adding more meaning to the spell, rather than more power. In the end players will appreciate the context and story long after the increase in power level has lost it’s fun.
Next up we’ll go over spell power and how to organize spells. Right now this is running a little long. My work commute has more than quadrupled in the past week. It’s tough to get blogging, but I want to make sure to keep providing inspiration for your games. Good luck.