The Methods of Mechanization – The Means of Communicating Intent and Effects in LARP – Part 2
“…and now for something completely different.”
Hi all! First off, thanks for all the great comments I’ve received thus far on the first post. For the most part they’ve been in line with just the kind of conversation these posts are supposed to start. In a serendipitous turn of events, it also seems that the Facebook group, LARP Haven (they’re private), has had its share of debates and discussions on many of the things I’ve discussed in the first part of this post, as well as in the first blog I wrote for larping.org. Check them out, as it is a good group, attracting fellow larpers from all over the world. I mention the LARP Haven discussion as it really set my gears in motion on the general topic of modern LARP rules development and some of the takeaways and lessons learned from those that came before. In general, it seems like there are two camps when it comes to your archetypal fantasy / sci-fi / etc… LARP. Again, I say “in general” because the discussion has to start somewhere, and this is where I’m starting it. Distill the details how you want. Your mileage may vary.
The first camp is made up of those who believe that LARP rules should encourage a gamist methodology and mentality in interacting with the game world; that is, “winning” and character optimization is the focus, even beyond actual role-playing or understanding narrative motivations. These systems usually manifest as rulebooks containing many pages, inundated with myriad vocalized effects, laundry lists of caveats and exceptions, and player character progression based on gaining access to lots of fantastic abilities and powers, rendering some players theoretically more powerful and skillful than other players and NPCs of less experience. These systems are also characteristically complicated, often favoring, not to mention preferred by, players who are able, or like to digest and process lots of esoteric rules, over those with any actual role-playing ability. Games like this are often found to be older and are the ‘first generation’ games, like NERO (which is a by-product of Alliance), Alliance, Dystopia Rising, or their many offshoots and children here in the States. Through talking to the people that play in these games, as well as experiencing them for myself over the years, I’ve been left with the notion that this approach is tenuous at best, if not ultimately damning. One thing that is common amongst all of them is a sort of “soft” understanding; that is, to exact upon, execute, and perhaps most important, play within these systems, eventually becomes untenable and unsustainable, despite players’ motivations to continue playing within the game world. Experience says we see a stark, inverse relationship between player abilities and skills garnered, and the mutual, if not unspoken, trust of the player population insofar as it concerns another player’s ability to correctly interpret and execute said rules and mechanics. The second camp, however, adopts a more minimalist approach to rules in favor of allowing character interactions, accompanied by a small amount of rules (notice I didn’t say no rules at all), and lots of role-play to drive the game forward. Often, these systems adopt rules that encourage immersion over competing levels of player meta-power, wherein there are streamlined combat and magic systems, with few vocalized effects and mechanics, and only where presumably and absolutely necessary. Examples include many international games, like Conquest of Mythodea and Bicolline, as well as some newer, regional, North American systems, like Lands of Exile, Arcane, and Gothic: The Lion Age. Please add your name to the comments if this pertains to your game as I would love to hear about some newer perspectives in rules development. Being that these posts are about communicating effects in LARP, however, let’s explore these two camps in within this context; that is, how are effects and intent different in a “rules-heavy” system versus a “rules-lite” system?
Picking up from the last post, I had chosen two examples of what you might expect to find scattered over the first generation, rules-heavy, rule books, referring to those systems that seek to more faithfully represent the quantity of skills and abilities one might find in table top RPGs that so heavily influenced the early LARP systems. Likewise, these types of skills and mechanics are more likely to be found in a LARP setting wherein a gamist culture prevails (or has indirectly been fostered), and where characters are made to feel that all players should possess heroic levels of prowess and ability, in addition to any natural ability they may bring to the game. What we often find in these environments, however, are a number of harmful cultural and administrative scenarios that only further degrade the quality of the game on the whole, whether players and administrators are wont to admit it or not. Let’s take a look at one of these scenarios below and then examine some alternative approaches to including a prolific amount of these types of rules in your game.
Too Many Skills and Abilities
Many popular and long running LARPs still adhere to this rules methodology in order to do a couple of things. First, they seek to more closely resemble many MMORPG’s and table top RPGs in order to presumably, attract more would-be players to LARPing and perhaps make players more apt to try the hobby in the first place. Second, this design method seeks to use large quantities of skills and abilities in order to provide balance among player characters, often in settings where games have defined classes or some semblance of class segmentation based on abilities. Lastly, it provides for a means by which players are made to feel as though they’re progressing through the purchase of more, or different skills and abilities, as we’ve been engendered with the idea that more stuff means we’re doing better, and that we’re special compared to the next person. While this way of doing things has sufficed for decades, it can no longer be argued that this system is not ridden with flaws, and is not, in fact, inherently bad for a number of reasons, which we’ll examine below.
The Table Top Experience
As discussed in the first part of this blog, the first American iterations of LARP rules were derived largely from the arcane tomes of unnameable rules that were early role-playing games. And this really isn’t all that surprising, right? While it’s hard to say whether or not LARPing would exist without them, we can safely say we’ve moved past having to build rules systems based on them. Table top systems, by necessity, have to develop rules sets and execution mechanics that account for any possible action a player might want to perform for the most part, from the heroic, to the mundane. This doesn’t have to be the case for LARP, and In fact, it probably shouldn’t be. By its nature, LARP is an immersive and physical hobby, one where players perform as many of their character’s actions as possible, and to that end, don’t require near as many rules as that of any given table top system. In fact, one could make the assertion that, beyond setting and some thematic elements, LARPs and table top systems should not have all that much in common; that is, wherein table top games have to account for any potential action a player may wish to take to maintain persistent immersion, LARPs must assume that a player can perform the action independent of a rule, that would, in fact, only serve to break the persistent immersion of the game world. It would seem that LARPs’ progenitors are now the very thing that are doing it harm; that what first brought players into the hobby is the source for much consternation, or at the very least, making it difficult for new and existing players to enjoy the game within these complicated constraints.
Skills as an Equalizer
As direct descendants of table top rules sets, it’s no wonder that popular, long-standing LARP rules books contain myriad heroic skills and abilities, intended to elevate the office drone to epic levels of Conan-like prowess and strength, or imbue the fry cook with the mysterious and arcane abilities of a Red Wizard. After all, this is what drew a lot of us LARPers to the hobby in the first place, right? What happens though, after you’ve been at it for a long time, is that you begin to realize that being able to pick and build a character from a laundry list of abilities, and in turn, having to learn all of the often complicated mechanics that accompany them, eventually detracts from the overall experience. Ask yourself whether or not it’s the fact that you get to swing this fake sword at people, perform an engrossing magical ritual, or discover a devious plot to assassinate a noble, that gets you immersed in the game, or is it in fact, all the rules you get to yell at people and process during a LARP event. Are you playing the game or are you playing the rules? Some would refer to this line of thinking as simply anti-gamist, however I can elaborate.
Alternatives to the Norm
So it would seem that the simple answer is to just not have so many effects and/or, right? Well, sort of. Let’s start by defining a few key terms that get tossed around a lot, but are in fact different animals. Note that these terms are within the context of LARP and not necessarily as they’re perceived and/or defined in general.
Rule – these are policies that define how a game is played and the game itself. A rule is an umbrella term that can cover everything from safety measures, to how long a specific effect lasts, to how to use an ability. A rule defines and dictates any action within the context of a game and helps the player to interact with and within the game. Examples include striking angle of a weapon or how long a count lasts before a player is considered dead.
Effect – refers to the abstraction of an action, or the execution of an action as a consequence of a rule, and is sometimes referred to as a mechanic. Effects usually are put in place to replicate real actions that might be harmful or otherwise impossible. Examples include standing still when under a “Paralyze” effect or falling down, “dead,” when being targeted with the “Death” effect. An effect is a rule whose specific intent is to replicate an action or a state of being. These are usually vocalized or communicated via some other means so as to indicate the action being performed, in addition to the resulting effect.
Ability – represents an action or meta-skill that a player is allowed to perform within the game. This can be as simple as swinging a weapon, throwing a magic spell, or getting the upper hand in a trade between powerful merchants. Abilities are usually accompanied or defined by, an effect, by which a player can manipulate, interact with, and influence the game world and other players
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about them as they seem to be the main culprit in this whole mess. Objectively, these little guys are what inject a lot of the fantasy into a fantasy LARP or other. No one can really put you to sleep with magic or hit you with a flaming sword (without it hurting a lot), so how do we replicate this cool, mystical stuff? Why, effects silly! Ok, then how do let someone know we’re doing this cool, mystical stuff to them? Why, we shout it at them of course! Ok, how do I know if your spell works on me? Wait…what? So therein lies the issue. It’s easy to understand why this train of thought makes sense and how it initially followed that this was a sensible approach to putting this stuff into your game. But bad stuff happens when too many of these are being thrown around in a combat or other sort of player interaction. Besides it sounding absolutely ridiculous and totally non-immersive, they can do a lot of harm to your game, especially in abundance. As we’ve covered this already, let’s go over some alternatives to this approach so we can keep the fantasy as seamless as possible, and not let that reality leak in. We’ll start with the assumption that we’re going to work on a rules set that will facilitate a fantasy world wherein our players can make and play characters who can do stuff you simply can’t or shouldn’t do in your day to day life, i.e. magic, murder, mayhem, etc… We then want to provide our players with all kinds of neat options and variations on how to harm other characters, steal from them, set traps, hurl magic at them, influence them to do things they’d not do otherwise, etc…Variety is the spice of life! Well this is where things get sticky. This is the point at which system efficiency breaks down and we get lots of redundancies, overlap, and complications that really muck up the works and cause confusion. With this in mind, let’s continue with our previous assumptions and goals. What do we do then, to ensure that we’re providing for sufficient fantasy elements in our game while maintaining immersion and the understanding that each abstraction placed between a player and their respective character renders them that much less engaged with the game their supposed to be experiencing? We can use the following graphics to better demonstrate this concept. This, “immersion sandwich”, while seemingly really delicious and tempting, simply becomes harder to swallow as it is continually stuffed with more and more rules and/or effects.
Trim down your rules set by employing some of the ideas below:
1. Assume It Can Already Be Done – start by assuming a player can perform any action their character can perform. This can help to inform rules development as we will continually ask ourselves if including another layer of abstraction between player and character is absolutely necessary. Lots of rulebooks like to over regulate combat; that is, in order to make players feel like fighters with greater levels of ability, they’ll include skills to subsidize and fill in any potential gaps in real skill, or as an attempt to heighten up the fantastic, thematic elements of the setting. Assume immersion first and consider an ability a last resort. Its always feels cooler and more satisfying to do something on your own as opposed to having to rely on some character sheet entry to the same ends.
2. Avoid Redundancies – many times rule books will include multiple iterations of the same effect, yet only call it something different. We see this most notably where immobilizing and / or status effects are concerned; where players are unable to move limbs, their entire body, are sickened, or some variation thereof. Since the goal here is to streamline things, only include those effects that truly differentiate themselves. Remember that more isn’t necessarily better, and that we don’t need to have minor variations on similar effects. It can be much more immersive to simply put different “skins” on the same effect, given the context and themes of the game world. As an example and typical scenario, perhaps we have multiple “schools” or “domains” of magic. We don’t have to come up with unique effects for every single one. We can, in fact, simply include the same effects in each domain, only re-skinned, making it so that the player population, on the whole, only has to learn a small amount of calls.
3. Consider the Method of Intent – as stated above, popular practice is to vocalize the explicit effect being used. Consider other options when coming up with ways to communicate intent and action abstractions. If it’s a defense ability, perhaps it doesn’t even need to be called? I mean, we are on the honor system after all? Perhaps it could be role played as a grunt and a stagger. While there are indeed, lots of ways to produce un-vocalized environmental effects, i.e. via lights, sounds, touch elements, etc… this list will primarily pertain to the meta-interactions between players. Including lots of special offensive abilities, however, offers its own set of challenges. How do we navigate including and communicating myriad, specific offensive abilities when the intent is to include as few “calls” as possible? Let’s look at a few, typical, weapon-delivered offensive skill examples and come up with some different ways we could execute them without the use of these calls.
Piercing or Body Damage – this type of effect typically refers to a strike, magical or otherwise, that bypasses any armor worn. This type of attack can be better allocated to a weapon type. For example, consider allowing this type of damage to be delivered only by piercing weapons, such as arrows, bolts, daggers, rapiers, etc… Does this mean that everyone will now be running around with a crossbow and a few daggers? Maybe, but so what? If they want to look like Rambo running around the battlefield, let them. In this way, we can also leave calls where they belong, in the magic system. If you were to hear someone shouting, “Body,” or some such variation, you’d now know it was magically rendered.
Disarming Strike – refers to a blow that disarms an opponent of anything they might be carrying in their hands. This one is a bit more complicated, although I would simply say leave it to rule number one above. Assume this and any non-harmful, non-impossible ability/skill can be achieved through actual skill, rather than via a forced, in-game effect.
Powerful Blow – this skill essentially represents a strike that deals an amount of damage well beyond what is normal. Like example A, we can allocate this ability to certain weapon types, however in this case, they’ll be of the larger variety. Let the player who wants to schlep around a spear, halberd, or large sword all weekend get some benefit! Give their weapon extra damage. For example, if all small/medium weapons do 1 point of damage, these big guys can do 2. In this way, there’d still be no need for extemporaneous calls, as all players have to do is remember which weapons do 1 point and which do 2.
Deflect or Parry (Defensive Abilities) – this refers to the purely abstracted version of a physical maneuver meant to block or deflect, as the name entails, an oncoming blow. As this mechanic is often purely an abstraction, it’s often meant as an added layer of protection when a weapon blow or other, in fact does make contact, and the target does not want to have to let the effect of the blow resolve upon them. Whereas offensive abilities require some method to communicate their delivery, we have the small luxury, in the case of defensive abilities, to let the honor system do the work for us. Should you wish to include these abilities in your rules set, a player need simply mentally account for the used ability when used and move on. While it might seem frustrating to an opponent that none of their blows seem to be having an effect, at least there would be a common understanding that their opponent might be mentally using their defensive abilities against the successful offensive blows. Again, honor system. What’s also nice about this approach, too, is that eliminates a whole host of calls that would have otherwise detracted from the immersion of the combat, and likewise, keeps a player from having to process loads of mental math. If you’re following along, we’re only up to tracking weapon types and a defensive skill or two (we’ll discuss magic systems a bit later). Leaving these out altogether isn’t a bad idea as well, as it’ll have the effect of making your players better at either blocking the blow, or simply getting out of the way.
In putting these series of posts together, I find myself noting lots of parallels between those concepts I’ve been taught in the tech world and those struggles within LARP development, most notably the concept of scaling out. In essence, it simply refers to how an existing hardware/software solution is going to manage extra workloads over time. Whether it’s simply adding more resources or writing adaptability into the software, something needs to happen in order to support this change and increase in demand. The system cannot stay stagnant. What works great now will sooner or later have to undergo some change, hopefully for the better. And I guess that’s what I’m getting at here. In my time doing this stuff, I’ve seen great games ruined by poor rules systems, inundated with obsolete and tired mechanics and unimaginative effects delivery systems. I’ve seen once enthusiastic players become disheartened and frustrated over years of dealing with this kind of stuff. It seems that there is some great unspoken reluctance to buck the status quo. I’ve also found that the simplest systems are often those that are the easiest to scale out, and are often the most successful at doing so. We all want our hobby, and likewise our games, to grow, right? Then keep the rules barrier to entry as low as possible for those that want to give it a shot. Let players turn their attention to their kit, to reading about the world you’ve spent so much time creating, to putting the finishing touches on their character or to telling their friends all about the hobby. If I haven’t convinced you that this is the way to go, hopefully I’ve at least given you something to consider.