The Methods of Mechanization – The Means of Communicating Intent and Effects in LARP – Part 1
Since my first post, I realize that I may have bitten off more than anyone should chew when trying to address the myriad cultural and administrative aspects of LARP. Going back through my original document, it was apparent that I could have easily turned the one post into potentially, many more consolidated and pointed discussions. The first of these will be a new series I’m entitling, “LARP Rules!”. Excusing the pun, this series of posts will cover the generalized, modern practices of American LARP rules systems and mechanics, and take a deep dive into their roots, where these systems are currently, how they got there, and where they’re going (or where we think they should go for that matter). In addition, I’ll be providing personal critique on some alternatives to common mechanics practices, in addition to soliciting input from some of the LARP braintrusts that I’ve come to know over the years. The intention of these articles is to foster a pseudo-academic approach to how we address the virtues and drawbacks to current LARP rules sets and how we can constructively progress when developing systems for future games that consider the current LARP climate and needs of gamers on the whole. In these sorts of debates and discussions, the go-to for many people is to say something along the lines of, “Well, there’s no right way to have fun, and don’t tell me how to have fun.” In addition to completely missing the point, this line of reasoning does little to further the debate on what makes for a rules set that encourages what I’ll refer to from now on as the LARP Core Rules Tenet. It is the following:
Meaningful, consequential role-play and immersion is the means and the end. The story is secondary and is the organic, waste byproduct of interactions between players, be it through combat, in game skills, social mechanics, or otherwise. As such, any rules system, being that which defines and dictates actions in a game, should seek to put up as low a barrier as possible to this end, it being understood that a rule designed to represent an action is not the action. This represents a departure from play, and therefore to immersion. This departure is anathema to this end and as such should be as limited in scope as possible.
Think about it for a minute. In the artistic and professional endeavors of the world, whether it’s painting, programming, music, or accounting, there exist standards and practices that have been developed and improved upon over the lifetimes of the practice. And while there may have been diverging techniques within the community you were in, eventually these techniques and principles of practice coalesced to form a foundation from which to establish the “best practices,” for the given endeavor or profession. Objective assessments of technique bring together those within a profession into one community of practice, thereby encouraging and formalizing standards by which to operate. LARP rules development and implementation should be no different. LARP is an interesting kind of endeavor in which we have a narrative form driven forward by participants within the context of a rules set meant to represent actions, be it large and complicated, or small and concise. However, this narrative is only driven forward through personal interactions, be they intra-player, or between players and game administrators. It’s usually both. The only time, as players, we think to illicit the use of a rule or mechanic, is when we wouldn’t otherwise be able to perform the action, whether out of concerns for safety, the limitations of our reality, or other. Although it can be said that the game couldn’t exist without rules, the rules aren’t necessarily what drive the plot or narrative forward. And this is the exceptional thing about LARP. The very element that defines a game, the rules in this case, are the very thing that impairs it, being the interactions between players that drive a plot. In a sense, it could be said that the relationship between a LARP and its respective rules set, while necessary, is ultimately its biggest enemy.
This concept is by no means limited those games in the fantasy, boffer genre, however, these types of games will be the focus of the proceeding discussions, as they tend to permeate the popular LARP scenes in whatever part of the world you may find yourself. While these dialogues, on part of author and reader alike, will no doubt be replete with personal views on what makes for a “good” rules set or mechanic, the intent here is to strip away these preconceived notions about what has worked in the past and reexamine rules development within the context of LARP as we know it today. After all, we have the foundation of 30+ years of experience upon which to stand and from which to make assessments. We are in a singular position of luxury here; one in which we can use the design principles of the past to inform future rules development. All the while, being able to create something totally new that caters to player experience expectation and play styles that have developed over three decades of experimentation. So let’s begin by stepping into the past to see how the early systems got off the ground.
In the beginning…
In the days before the popular use of the Internet, sometime in the late 80’s, when the troll was something relegated to story time and Dungeons and Dragons, one of the few ways to find and talk to your niche was through its respective newsstand publication. And for the gamers of the world, this publication was Dragon Magazine. It was THE place to go if you wanted to get the latest news and updates for everything D&D, get the word out for your convention, for the coolest new game that was going to land, or if you were trying to tell others about a strange new hobby; a hobby that would come to be known as live action role playing. Somewhere in the northeastern U.S., a bunch of people from a local gaming store thought it might be a good idea to get up from the table and try this thing out for real. And it worked. Really well, as a matter of fact. Soon after they thought to publish a notice in Dragon Magazine, people started to show up by the hundreds.
It seemed that the hive mind was on their side in this case, for lo, LARP was born. The preceding information, in so many words, comes from a great interview the guys at LARPCast did, with one of the founders of this early LARP group, Mike Ventrella. The game he and his comrades would go on to create was, in a sense, patient zero for the many mutations we see today in the fantasy LARP genre. Given this humble beginning, it is easy to understand why the rule books for many popular games, as well as their descendants, still look the way they do. In lots of cases, these rulebooks seem to prioritize staying faithful to the complicated and overly detailed mechanics of their table-top progenitors in favor of actually doing more to facilitate an easy transition for players into a hobby they helped to create in the first place. It is this concept that is perhaps one of the more fascinating aspects of the rules discussion. In the early days it seems that the motivations were mainly centered around catering to the thematic elements of your pen and paper RPG’s of the day. So how then, do we transition from designing rules systems around these themes and forms, which are not particularly suited to replication within the context of the LARP form, to designing systems that instead, cater to the LARP form while maintaining the thematic elements of a given setting or genre? We’ll discuss this more a little later and in additional articles.
Where are we now?
Right now it seems that the hobby is in a bit of a flux. We have the large, franchise and chapter games still firmly rooted around the country, with an aging population of organizers and admin who’ve been around since the beginning, alongside newer players and organizers who’ve really not had the same amount of success in improving upon the overall hobby or “growing” it, in general. While this is backed up mostly by personal experience and observation, one need only look around the web at the different offerings to see that it’s pretty sparse in terms of overall quality and experience. We haven’t really seen the growth and improvement in player population and aesthetics experienced by the European LARP scene. It just seems a bit strange as to why this is when we’ve got the proliferation of large social and festival style gatherings like Burning Man and other such events that attract tens of thousands of people to do little else besides “hang out”, not to mention the relative increase in popularity and notoriety “geek” society has experienced over the past few years. It would stand to reason that LARP, even in its position as a fringe activity at best, would attract no small percentage of these numbers, right? Perhaps it will simply never become all that accessible and grand, and maintain its current status, somewhere between a novel pastime and niche hobby. While it has gained some traction and recognition in the media, it seems as though this attention has done little to advance the craft. Dismal musings aside, and because this series is supposed to be dedicated to rules theory and critique, let’s shift gears a bit and take a look at how this aspect of game development has perhaps affected the overall progression of LARP into what we experience today.
As was summarized in the previous section, there is little mystery with regards to the origins of the early LARP rules sets. Given the lens of time, we have the luxury of being able to look back and ask ourselves if early game development methodologies were in fact, optimal in establishing a successful LARP framework. Hindsight being 20/20, we can make the assessment that attempting to translate rules sets designed for executing tabletop gaming actions into mechanics to facilitate live role playing probably wasn’t the best approach. This isn’t meant to demean or marginalize the efforts of our LARP forefathers, but to simply give context to discussions around why we might want to look at changing LARP rules design philosophy in the first place. Put a different way, had these LARP pioneers known what it would become, would they have started where they did? While this isn’t quite a “chicken or the egg” scenario, it is easy to understand why it might have been difficult to anticipate that the hobby would eventually take on a life all of its own, of, but apart from its tabletop parents. We can now take these insights and begin to develop new ideas around how to foster and nurture this new manifestation of an old and loved hobby. And there’s really no better place to start than the rules. So with that, welcome to LARP Rules!, a series of blogs specifically geared towards addressing some of the core issues in rules development and implementation that, over the years, I, in addition to others, have found to be prohibitive to those interested in the hobby as well as those that have been around for a while. While the reasoning behind the issues will be subjective, I will seek to be as objective as possible in presenting evidence to support my claims and complaints, and I would ask that any replies to the content follow suit.
“10 Normal Poison Magic Damage Slay Fire Huge Kill Boom……. Get all that? No? Strange, it couldn’t have been made more clear in our 200 page rule book that you should have at least glossed over once before coming out to play. Oh, you did but you still couldn’t process all that? Well, clearly you’re the one with the problem then, as our rules system is great.
This ever happen to you? You’re out at a LARP and suddenly you’re accosted by some NPC or other, and then swept up into a dizzying maelstrom of cacophonous and unintelligible cackling, your brain frozen in a state similar to shock. Let me begin by talking about a little concept known as Hick’s Law.
In the early 1950’s, British Psychologist, W.E. Hick devised a series of 9 experiments based around the study of mental chronometry, that is, the study of “…response time in perceptual-motor tasks to infer the content, duration, and temporal sequencing of cognitive operations.” In short, it studies the brain’s reaction time to commands in an attempt to assess processing power and speed. So how does all this apply to LARP? Getting to that. The series of 9 experiments introduced different cues to subjects that were intended to illicit some corresponding reaction on part of the subject, unique to the cue. Hick found that as the number of possible, unique cues increased, reaction time in subject increased, logarithmically. It became clear that even the possibility of more choice in potential commands befuddled and confused the brain, making that much more difficult to efficiently respond to stimuli. Let’s apply this to a few randomly sampled skills from major LARP rule books from around the country and break them down into their smaller, more easily digestible components. This assessment will assume some prior insight into how LARP rules work, in general, and will not attempt to target only the most extreme cases to support my assertions.
Case Study 1:
Dystopia Rising LARP Survivor’s Guide
This Skill counters Concentrated Fire, Destroy Shield, Destroy Weapon,
Disarming Shot, Scatter Shot, Sniped Shot, Knockout, and any other successful,
ranged targeted attacks. In order to use this skill, spend 5 Mind Points and
clearly say “Avoid!” This skill is ineffective against Area of Effect attacks
(such as bombs or “By My Voice” effects), as they do not target the user
So my character has this skill they can use during the game, and it’s potentially one of many. Having skimmed the book a bit prior to writing this, a few things are immediately apparent. I’m going to have to remember lots of stuff. First off, I’ll need to remember that this skill is 5 Mind Points, a skill resource system particular to this LARP, yet a common implement in skills systems in many LARPS. That is, a player can have any number of different skills, or in game actions, that cost something intangible and unique to the rules system. Some might call them points, slots, etc… On top of cross referencing the point cost with an available character point pool, i.e. how many points I’ve got left, I’ll need to also remember that I can use this skill to counter the following:
Ranged Targeted Attacks
It can’t be used against Area of Effect attacks, so now I’ll need to become familiar with what those are and what to listen for to know when one has happened.
Case Study 2:
NERO LARP Rule Book, 9th Edition
Critical Slay / Parry <weapon> <hand>*
This skill enables the character to either swing a large amount of damage, or avoid a physical attack once a day for each time the skill is bought. A critical slay/parry may be bought once for every two full weapon proficiencies. Both of these skill uses the same handedness rules and specific weapon rules as critical attack and Weapon proficiency. Anyone with multiple critical slays/parry can expend a parry while they have an active slay without expending the active slay. Does 100 damage and is called as “100 <weapon type><damage type> Slay.” For example: “100 Silver Ice Slay” A critical slay will always do full damage to a creature with a threshold or a damage cap. Before using a critical slay, the character must call out “Prepare to die!” (this is an OOG statement and can be made even while silenced). The Slay is considered used as soon as the statement is made. The Slay will be active until the blow is landed, or five minutes pass. If the blow is landed, the Slay damage can be negated by other game defenses such as phase, dodge, parry, magic armor, etc. The 5 minute time period cannot be shortened by any other means, including having the weapon disarmed or destroyed, calling a defense, killed and then Life’d, falling unconscious, etc. When engaging new opponents you must announce “Active Slay” this is an OOG statement and can be made even when silenced. A player hit by a Slay who does not die from the Slay must announce that the Slay was successful by saying “Hit” or role-playing appropriately. This informs the fighter using the Slay that he or she must then begin calling regular damage again.
May be used in place of a critical slay
This allows the character to call “Parry” instead of being affected by any one physical attack delivered by a NERO weapon or packet. Parry can only be used to block physical attacks from boffer weapons, arrows, and attacks with the word “Physical” in the incant. i.e. Parry can block a weapon trap, but not an explosive trap. It cannot be used to block spellstrike. You may not use a parry if you do not have a weapon in your hand or if your weapon is not free. A Two Handed weapon must be held in both hands to be able to use a parry. You may Parry a blow that strikes another character provided you are able to touch the victim of the attack with your weapon. A character using the parry skill calls out “Parry”in response to the attack being negated. If Parrying for another, a character calls out “Parry for <X>” where X is the name or race of the character you are Parrying for.
This was no mistake. This skill comes in two parts. Let’s begin by breaking down the intended function of the skills and then dissect their components. The apparent intent here is that we have two skills designed to counteract each other and give players some flexibility in regards to how they choose to expend the ability. Slay, if not apparent from its name, is a special offensive skill designed to deal out higher damage than is normal in most cases, while Parry, its defensive counterpart, is designed to counter a lot of the special offensive abilities in the game. So, not only do I have to know what Slay does, I have to know what Parry does as well. The Slay, in its execution and technical challenges, exhibits design flaws that perfectly demonstrates Hick’s Law. That is, should I use a Critical Slay attack, I not only need to announce “Prepare to Die,” I also need to make sure that I hurl up to four other abstractions at my opponent, all meant to trigger some possible response in my opponent. Beyond just doing lots of extra damage that a player must now subtract from their total hit points, I am putting the unnecessary onus on other players to make sure they acknowledge all of the additional extensions to my weapon damage call. It is pretty easy to see how quickly this could break down in lots of circumstances. And what’s worse is that this skill is actually dictating, if not at least on a small level, how I’m supposed to role-play the skill. “Prepare to Die!” I can only guess that this was something implemented in order to slow down repeated, rapid successions of Slays, as after that, I am at a loss. There’s so much going on with this skill that I’m a bit surprised it actually requires that you even use a weapon and not some further abstraction of the action. This kind of mechanic design should be avoided, in general, as it is one thing to require the user to remember all of the esoteric semantics of a given rule, but quite another to place that burden on other players. As I’ve been accused of ‘punting’ before, I’ll simply say that an easy fix to this would be to simply announce, “100” or some such contextually large number, in addition to getting rid of Parry altogether, as it does a couple of things. First, it no longer requires other players to acknowledge lots of other potential inputs beyond simply the number of damage, or health points that they must subtract from their current total. Second, it takes away the odd requirement to warn an opponent of their imminent demise or that you’ve got a slay active, which in addition to just being kind of an odd thing to make a player do, serves no real mechanical purpose. Lastly, it still effectively communicates to an opponent that they’ve been targeted with some above average amount of damage and that they’ll need to use the necessary corresponding skill(s) to counter it. To put this in perspective, if I’m in a game where damage numbers are relatively low and calls are few, vocalizing a damage call in a system wherein there rarely are vocalized executions of effects can have a profound impact and be an effective medium to communicate an extraordinary ability. Parry, on the other hand is one of those effects plaguing LARP rules systems that seek to reproduce an action people are able to safely execute themselves. Remember, the goal here is to impede immersion as little as possible, so in effect, you’re telling someone you dodged an attack that you didn’t actually dodge. Let’s save this kind of thing for the magic system, and when we absolutely need it..which we’ll cover a bit later.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog series, in which we’ll address some updated and common sense approaches to this antiquated and overly complicated means of mechanization. Thanks for reading.