The American boffer LARPs that I’m familiar with, particularly those in the Southeast, have a strong inheritance from D&D. In particular, NERO and its offspring systems are very much class-and-level-based fantasy. There are, of course, games that stray further away, being more skill-based than level-based, focusing more on hit location than hit points, and embracing genres other than heroic fantasy. Yet all that I’m aware of still award increasing damage output and mitigation as characters gain experience, whether that’s in more damage and HP or more special attacks and expendable avoidance mechanics.

This means that life is hard for a new player that joins the game after it’s been running for a while. I played in a NERO-variant where veterans were calling 20 damage per swing when they weren’t calling instant death attacks and had hundreds of HP and armor to accompany their loads of avoidance abilities versus new players who generally dealt 2 damage per swing and had a few dozen HP. NPC monsters sent out to serve as speedbumps to veterans can slaughter any new players they happen across. Harbinger has some great ideas on how to keep this from becoming an overwhelming problem, but it’s still a problem.

Due to the high cost of venues and limited staff, LARPs tend to need a consistently large number of players; over years of play there is inevitable churn and it’s tough to attract and retain new players when they’re going to be drastically below average for years. Many games with heavy story tend to end and/or reset all PCs after a few years once the main plots are finished. But while this may make it easier for newbies to jump on at the next reset, it makes it doubly hard for them to join late in an ongoing campaign: their characters will never get very powerful and they’ll have to work extremely hard to be relevant to a plot whose threads are being tied up. Without resets, you get stories like the NERO chapters that have PCs who have been playing since the late 80s without a character reset.

I suspect many heavy-PvP LARPs and non-American PvE LARPs may solve this problem with extremely limited advancement, but ditching experience points isn’t the only solution. The peculiar DNA of American LARPs seems to have weirdly passed D&D to boffer LARPs and World of Darkness only to salon LARPs. Most White Wolf games allow PCs to start very competent in combat because the requisite attributes and abilities are capped to a level attainable in character generation. These characters aren’t extremely versatile, but they are potent.

This can make challenging the PCs harder. Harbinger frequently worried about what kind of challenges to throw at our party in Mage that was mixed between heavily combat-specced PCs and PCs with virtually no combat skills whatsoever. Even the theoretically-hardest threats in the sourcebooks could be defeated by us very early if they didn’t use their superior versatility to keep us from defining the context of the battlefield. But this is potentially much less of a problem in a LARP, where there are more players to self-organize to face various challenges. The “this fight is too hard for the PC” assumption would become “because he chose to be good at something other than fighting” rather than “because he is a newb and would fail no matter what his choices were.” Meanwhile, feeling powerful earlier is great for players, and a bounded range of threats makes world-building much easier for the GM.

I think there’s a way to pull this off in boffer LARPs that both makes newbies feel like powerful contributors and rewards high-experience veterans. The general points would be:

  • Players are strongly encouraged to focus on combat or non-combat skills (possibly further subdivided into different types like mage vs. rogue skills). This could be an official class system, or just a mechanism by which skills outside your specialty are much more expensive than those within.
  • All skill types have a potency limit that can be met or nearly met by a new player. If you’re HP-based, the maximum damage on swings/spells and total purchasable HP is within reach of a new, combat-focused character. If you’re hit-location-based, the total number of special attacks and avoidance effects you can bring into a given fight is, similarly, something new PCs can meet.
  • Skills have a deep well of versatility that allows veteran players to slightly outclass new players if they’re prepared for what they’re fighting. Maybe a new player can master one type of weapon, but different weapons are useful against different creatures so it pays off to master several. Maybe the veteran can replace generic special defenses and attacks with abilities that are more useful against one threat type (but less useful against others). Magic and other non-combat skills come in an array of different specialties.
  • Non-combat skills all have player-directed effects that are in some way relevant to combat. This may mean that magic or an equivalent is better at buffing/debuffing than fighting. Rogue and Lore skills allow battlefield control by setting up locks, wards, or traps to prevent enemies of certain types from attacking from unexpected directions, and may have protectives against certain attack or creature types.

Ultimately, the goal is that veterans should be very happy to involve new players. New combat-focused PCs are just as powerful as veterans in many encounters, and still a really good person to stand behind and buff for veteran non-combat PCs. New non-combat PCs have desirable buffs and debuffs to stand behind veteran combat PCs, and can deploy additional battlefield control that’s useful in any kind of challenging encounter.