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Meta-Special Effects
also first published in MetaGame Magazine

The live combat game that I have played in for the last 9 years is called The Realms of Wonder, or alternately, The Realms. Traditionally when we throw events our focus has been less on story telling and more on trying to create a perfect moment where the terror and the exhilaration of the combat serves as a vehicle to sever our ties to the present and give us a glimpse of what actually living in a world of our own creation might be like. Sometimes it has worked, and sometimes it has been a dismal failure. When it has worked, it has often been through the judicious application of special effects. The effective use of these enhancements, whether by the Realms by any other LARP is controlled by three factors that the game master needs to take into account: cost, safety and technical difficulty. An analysis of these factors and a controlled environment in which to perform the effects is what make their use successful in a live combat game.

Safety is the consideration that is nearest and dearest to my heart. The Realms are somewhat fanatical about the safety of our participants, but that has not stopped various game masters from doing incredibly stupid things because they wanted to pull off a cool special effect. As a general safety point, any special effect should be easily operable in the dark. The Realms knows this from experience because we do a lot of night questing. A special effect that does not go off because you cannot find the "on" button in the dark is not a special effect at all. Effects, especially extensions to your NPCıs bodies like horns, claws and glowing lights need to be "boff safe". That means that they have to be able to withstand being hit by a boff weapon without being destroyed, and they also cannot inflict any damage to a boff weapon. In the Realms combat system the only things that can legally strike an opponent are a safe boffer weapon or a beanbag. A weapon that has had a large hunk of foam torn out of it because it hit the crown on the head of your king demon is not safe. Especially on a night quest when it is harder to spot check your own weapon in low level lighting. Also, the game master and her special effects master need to think ahead and trouble shoot what kind of residue the special effect will leave behind for the players and NPCs to trip and stumble on in the dark.

This is a good example of what is not safe on the field. I NPCed at an event where at the high point of the night quest was the sacrifice of one of the players on the altar of Demonicus. The altar was a raised platform that had been specially constructed for this event with a large hole in the middle of it. The player, Sir Conıf, was placed on the altar with his head, shoulders and arms on top of the altar and his body and legs through the hole. A fake body and legs were placed where his real ones would go, and the join was covered with a tabard. In the dark it looked like Sir Conıf was just lying on the altar. Also in the empty space under the altar was the guy who was playing Demonicus in his demon mask, large handfuls of red jell-o sculpted to look like various internal organs, and a smoke machine. The effect was supposed to look like this. The players crest the hill, they see Conıf on the altar. Conıf begins to writhe in torment, ominous smoke seeps out from underneath the altar. Conıf screams in pain and his lower body rips open flinging internal organs about and a full sized Demonicus steps out from his guts to blast the players. What actually happened was that the smoke from the smoke machine got trapped underneath the altar making the NPC playing Demonicus hack and choke because of the chemical smell and lack of oxygen. Demonicus didnıt leap out of the body, he flung himself out so that he could find breathable air and collapsed on top of Conıf gasping. Not what the game master had planned. With a little forethought we could have either done away with the smoke, moved the smoke to a different location, ventilated the smoke, given the NPC an oxygen mask, actually rehearsed the stunt or even picked an NPC to play the role who didnıt have a reduced lung capacity (another surprise, "Demonicus" only had a _ if one lung that was functioning normally).

Another thing to keep in mind when planning special effects; are you technically capable of pulling the effect off in a believable fashion? A good example of this is the Floating Head at an event called _Swamp Fling_. The game master had arranged to hang a styrofoam ball from the trees on the path that the night quest was going to take. He had also arranged a film projector to throw an image of someoneıs face talking onto the ball. Unfortunately, when the players came upon the effect, it was painfully obvious even in the dark that it was a glowing styrofoam ball and not a glowing floating head. The event-holder had tried to do more than he was capable of pulling off, and it had the effect of breaking the willing suspension of disbelief that the players had maintained up until that point. It was silly rather than terrifying. On the flip side of that, I once had a friend of mine who sculpts foam make a tree for an event I threw called _Feast of Chimeron V_. The magic sword that the players were looking for was supposed to be hidden in a tree, but there wasnıt a tree with a hollow large enough to fit the sword in on site. So my friend, Jeffo, made a portable, hollow, tree stump. He constructed it with 2 x 4s and chicken wire, then wrapped couch foam around the outside and carved the foam into rough furrows that looked remarkably like oak bark, then spray painted the whole thing bark colored. The top of the stump (complete with blackened growth rings) had a slit in it that the sword slid into. I walked by the thing three times myself before I realized that it wasnıt real. Why this worked and the head didnıt was because I found someone with the technical capability to pull it off.

Once we had an NPC who was a scuba diver. During an event that involved a lot of running up and down a stream bed he hid in the water. When players tried to cross the stream he would surge up out of the water waving a sword, covered with reeds and marsh grasses. The players were scared witless every time even after the rumor went around that there was a river monster., because they never expected the monster to be IN the water. Again, that effect worked because we knew someone who had the equipment and the ability to carry out the stunt safely. Another example of a technical effect that worked: last year I co-held an event with Chris "Lackey" Chaney called _What Fools These Mortals Be_. We had released seven magic swords over the course of 5 years, and for the climax of the plot line we decided that we wanted to have the wielders of the swords turned into demons right in front everyone. The question became, how were we going do that without storytelling it? How were we going to get the players to remember a demonic transformation that was scary and not awkward or controlled too obviously by the GMs? In the end we bought 7 car headlights and hooked them up to battery packs. We then positioned the lights around the edge of a clearing facing inward. During the night quest, every time someone wielding one of these magic swords entered the clearing, one of the lights went on, and the player was unable to leave the circle. When the last sword entered the circle, the seventh light went on... and then they all went out at once. The destruction of the other players night vision was what gave us time to get the masks and the cloaks onto the players wielding the swords. By the time people were able to see again, the clearing was filled with seven horned, cloaked demons. The ensuing mass hysteria is a moment that I will always remember with the deep sense of satisfaction that can only come from being a game master.

The lights that we used at _What Fools These Mortals Be_ cost about $100. However, donıt think that useful special effects need to be expensive. Some of the best special effects for live games are very affordable. One of my favorites involves cylume or light sticks. Cylume sticks are a staple of Realms events. They are the material component for a light spell in our system; it wouldnıt be a night quest if there werenıt 3 or 4 people clustered around a scroll trying to read it by a cylume stickıs feeble glow. One of the other ways that we use cylume sticks is to make a star field. Just after it begins to become fully dark take 7 or 8 matching light sticks. Crack them and shake them up to activate all the chemical inside. Attach one end of a light stick to a string that is 12 to 18 inches long. Now poke a hole in the other end of the light stick. Standing in the middle of a path that the players are going to walk down, whirl the light stick around your head, splattering the glowing liquid on the ground, the leaves and the overhanging trees. It should take about 7 or 8 light sticks to mark a path about 30 feet long. To walk down the path through the stars at night is very disorienting and very eerie. If you coat one of your NPCs with the same splatter effect and stick them just to the side of the path they are virtually invisible to the players and create quite a stir when they leap out and attack. Another inexpensive special effect also uses light. 4 or 5 years ago I bought a whole bunch of mini floral lights on sale for $2 a set. Essentially, they are a very short string of miniature Christmas tree lights, they run off of two AA batteries and have a simple on/off switch. You can find them in craft stores or floral supply stores and they are meant to add light points to special floral arrangements. I use mine for everything. I incorporated them into King Oberonıs cloak of leaves so it looks like he has little light fairies trapped in his cloak. Players on night quests are like moths; they are attracted to light. Because these mini lights have an on/off switch, I have strung them in bushes and used the on/off switch to draw specific players in the direction I want them to go. I once also had the opportunity to play The Earth Goddess for an "underground" dungeon crawl. The costume I made for the role was painted with lichen designs in glow in the dark paint. I also took those same mini lights and attached them to a staff, disguising the wires as creeping vines and kept my hand over the switch and battery pack. Whenever the Earth Goddess got angry or cast a spell, I turned the lights on for effect.

I donıt really recommend spending large amounts of money on special effects. For one thing, I believe that if an effect canıt be done for less than $100, then itıs just not worth doing for most live combat LARPs. It is important to balance the desire to impress your players with the very real financial constraint of at least breaking even. Smoke machines, for example, are very tempting to rent, especially for controlled indoor environments, but they break all the special effects rules They are usually finicky and difficult to operate, especially in the dark. If you rent one you have to rent the machine (after leaving a deposit) and buy the chemicals to make the smoke and itıs generally $75 to $100 a day. Often, even if you get it cranked up and running well, there is generally someone in the party who either has asthma or is allergic to the smoke. In my opinion, smoke machines are just not a good bang for your buck. This impromptu FX checklist can also easily be used for more traditional IL style games with the caveat that an investment in permanent props and other equipment may not be as feasible from a financial perspective for theater style game masters. In live combat games with an ongoing story, the cost of special effects can be recouped over an entire event season if necessary (though I donıt recommend it), where most theater style games are either one-shots or are run only infrequently.

If you take away one thought from this article it should be that special effects need to be appropriate, believable and affordable as well as safe. Only when the game master has taken account of all these factors will the use of special effects in a live combat game create a truly spectacular moment that stays in the players mind long after the game is over.