LARP Design theory: Part 1: Skills
By Nathan Hook
This series look at
various different aspects of LARP design and theory. This first one looks
at something common to most LARPs – character skills, and different ways to
There are two core
different ways to handle character skills in LARP events, soft and hard.
‘Soft skills’ are
skills which the character can have without the player doing so. For
example the ability to create fireballs is normally a soft skill.
‘Hard skills’ are
skills which the player needs to have to use. For example, walking and/or
talking are normally hard skills.
What is a soft skill
and what is a hard skill varies greatly between LARPs. It can be argued
that making as much use as possible of hard skills makes the LARP more
immersive and ‘real.’ Use of soft skills is more associated with tabletop
role-playing, or less kindly has been described as ‘hiding behind your
counterview to this is that excessive use of hard skills restricts what a
person may play. Should a person who is not very stealthy in real life be
allowed to play a stealthy character? If you believe they should, then you
need some game mechanic to represent stealth.
There are also
combinations of these two approaches include:
‘Soft skills that
permit the use of hard skills’ - where the player is required to spent
character points to buy as a soft skill as well. For example, a player may
need to buy the literacy skill for their character to be able to read, but
the player will still then be able (and allowed) to read for real.
‘Hard skills that
affect the performance of soft skills’ – where how the player does something
affects the results, even through it’s a character skill. For example, many
big LARPs have a ritual system where players can buy a ritual magic skill
for their character, but the outcome is also affected by how well they act
out the ritual for real.
‘Soft skills that
affect the performance of hard skills’ – use of foam weapons is considered a
hard skill. However some systems have soft skills that increase the damage
caused by each blow, or allow blows to be negated by dodges.
I shall now give
some examples to consider that should help to get you thinking about these
issues. I pose them as open questions - there are no right or wrong answers
- and how you answer will depend on the style of your LARP.
Juggling. This is always a hard skill (as far as I know), because
it’s considered so obscure and ‘harmless’ to make having a soft skill for it
pointless. Also, having someone with only a soft skill declare ‘I’m juggling
these balls’ may damage the suspension of disbelief. However if a character
is called upon to entertain a high status person, such a skill may suddenly
become really useful. Is this fair?
Lock-picking. In many LARPs this is a soft skill. However, I have
seen a player take out real lock picks and pick a lock for real during an
event. If you were running an event how would you respond to this? Wold
you tell the player they can’t do that, or applaud their skill? The same
might equally apply to players breaking a code or solving a puzzle for real.
Romance. I was once at a LARP where characters pulled a random
coloured bead from a bag to determine how well they ‘perform’ with a forest
nymph they met. While not actually a game skill this is another form of
‘soft resolution.’ It’s worth bearing in mind that soft skills can be used
for actions too dangerous or ‘in bad taste’ to carry out for real. I also
heard about a freeform LARP that used the game pat-a-cake to represent
sexual contact, which is an example of one hard skill be using to represent
Well digging. I heard about a LARP where some player characters
tried to dig a well and the hard skills players decided to try to do this
for real. They got into a mess because none of them actual knew how to dig
a well for real. This example points out one of the problems of an
excessive hard skill approach: it restricts the range of characters someone
can play. Of course no LARP actually has ‘well digging’ as a defined soft
skill. However some LARPs have very broad soft skills. A character with
‘ranger skills’ could probably claim they knew how to perform them, for
example. How narrow or broad skills are is something to consider carefully
when designing your system.
traditions have taken different approaches. In the Nordic countries, almost
everything is a hard skill (ex. if you want to be a blacksmith, you actually
have to know the basics of blacksmithing). This works because LARPs over
there are about playing normal characters, not one with exceptional skills
or supernatural powers. Some players like the idea of training themselves
to learn useful in game skills. Other LARPers object to such because they
think that is going too far or don’t have the time or interest.
In the UK most LARPs
have combat-related soft skills and soft skills for things perceived to be
‘useful’ that affect game balance. Skills without perceived use are often
left as hard skills. A few have argued the reverse would be better to make
players act out those things that are the focus on the game.
In the US, soft
skills are more main-stream. This often leads to very large rulebooks but
does allow more ‘heroic’ styles of game with larger than life characters.
NERO’s® slogan ‘be all you can’t be’ sums this approach up.
If you ever design
(or review) a LARP system, how it has addressed the question of hard and
soft skills is something to consider carefully, and inform the players of,
so they can act appropriately. To sum up, here are some points you should
bear in mind:
Is your system for mostly soft skills (like White Wolf’s MET system)
or hard skills? Do you need soft skills at all?
Should your soft skills cover the actions the game is about, or
actions that occur in the background? What about skills that are only used
Are your soft skills broad enough? Do they overlap (which may not be
a bad thing)
If a player actually just starts doing things for real (picking
locks, breaking codes) because they can really do them, how will you react
as game organizer?
The next article in
this series will look at another common element of many LARPs – combat,
armour and injury mechanics, and the possible different approaches.
About The author: Nathan Hook