LARP Design: Less Can Mean More

A short while back I was reading an article and related forum post about rules within LARP gaming. The part that jumped out at me, summed up, stated that rules-heavy systems favored weak role-players and rules-light system favored strong role-players. It also shared that rules-heavy systems were becoming a problem in that people could just fall back on the rules rather than exercise their LARP ‘muscles’ and learn to be a better role-player.

Between this article and various scholarly works1 I’ve read from the Knutepunkt conference (LARP related and held up in various Norwegian countries) I realized that the styles of games I was preferring were those in which the rules were easy to understand, but also fewer in number. Then I asked myself why I preferred this. The conclusion I came to: Such games were easier to play, more fun to play and allowed for more artistic license during play.

Before I get into the meat of this article I feel a need to note here that what one LARP group considers necessary in the way of rules another LARP group may scoff at. Not only must this be analyzed on a system by system basis but I also feel even more so on a cultural basis. Each culture has different expectations and challenges it must meet for the game to be successful and the rules to work. Different cultures too, have different understandings on what must be outlined in the rules based on the games played and the understood but unwritten rules. What is considered acceptable and even expected here in the USA may not be over in Germany or Denmark.

With that being said, in the process of coming up with the above conclusion I came up with some traits which I feel a LARPs rule system should exhibit:

They can be adjudicated with the little to no interference to the game, helping to maintain game atmosphere and suspension of disbelief.
Every single time you need to call a hold to adjudicate a rule and every time you need to break character to run a challenge you break down that suspension of disbelief and make it harder to maintain character. Consistently breaking character to adjudicate rules breaks down the quality of the game as well as people spend more and more time out-of-character dealing with rules issues rather than in-character role-playing and participating in the game. Rules should run seamlessly within the game with the results being quick to calculate the outcome of, on the fly, and without having to break character to do so as much as possible.

They should have purpose and reason for existing and should be there to help enhance game play.
Rules are there to help provide a mechanism for consistent conflict resolution in such a way that allows the incident to quickly and hopefully subtly be dealt with so that the game can continue. If a particular action or aspect of the game does not necessarily need a rule, then don’t make one. An example of this would be in-game status. You don’t need an in-game status mechanic. That is better determined by role-play and the way a person portrays their character versus how others see that portrayal.

Rules that help support role-play by rewarding positive behavior (if you role-play the ritual you get fewer negative stones in the draw bag thus increasing your chance for a more favorable outcome) or by encouraging role-play when it would otherwise be an opportunity to break character or go out-of-character for an extended time (rather than twiddle thumbs and engage in out-of-character chatter while your character is busy resurrecting in game, have the player go to a different area and engage in role-play with an entity that their spirit would interact with while resurrecting) are more favorable than those that cause a person to consistently drop out-of-character or break character with nothing to encourage role-play.

Role-play is an art and the minimum required rules should be in place to allow for the artistic creativity and interpretation of all players to take place.
There should be enough rules to create a good structure by which the game can run, however too many rules and the game master/plot crew ends up busy micromanaging things because the rules are too nit-picky in detail. Also, the more nit-picky rules are the less artistic creation exists because of the significantly increased rigid framework the rules have created.

Just because you can create a rule for something does not always mean it’s necessary or the right thing to do. Role-play requires enough flexibility within the rules system to allow people the freedom of artistic creativity with their character. Too rigid of this rules set and that creativity is stifled or shoehorned into rigid categories which cause an abundance of character clones because of the lack of flexibility (this is also why I detest using classes within game systems and advocate building around a character concept instead).

LARP rules are not table-top rules, nor should they be table-top rules.
What works in a table-top setting usually does not work in a live-action setting. The two are intrinsically different gaming models. Where you can have more rules and deeper rules in a table-top game, too many rules and too complex of rules will quickly ruin a LARP (this isn’t to say your table-top game should be ‘uber rulez’ heavy either). In a table-top game you can have more mechanics in play for different powers, abilities, and details and still be able to run a smooth and engaging game than you can in a LARP. This is because during a table-top game it’s easier to find the time to reference a rule or supplement book than it is in a LARP. In a LARP everything happens on the fly and, in my opinion, so much more spontaneous that there isn’t always time to check a rule before taking an action or reacting to another individual. It is for this reason that LARP designers need to remember that writing rules for a LARP isn’t like writing rules for a table-top game.

To conclude I feel that rules created under these guidelines do lead to fewer rules and rules which advocate quicker and seamless adjudication and enhance the game as a whole. Thus, in short, less can mean more.

As always I love to hear feedback and suggestions for further articles. Feel free to leave a comment at RPG.net, write Amber at webmaster [at] mortalisrpg [dot] com or comment below.

1You can find that list of PDFs in my LJ or on my Facebook page.

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