Friday, June 03, 2005

LARP Systems

I don't feel great about doing LARP theory, simply because I haven't been actively LARPing for almost 2 years now. But I'm sort of beginning to feel that someone has to.

This may be preliminary to other things. Or it may not be.

A good LARP system must be:

1) Clear-cut and binding enough that it can resolve with a minimum of GM judgement.
2) Simple enough that it can be resolved without a GM to coach people in it.
3) Quick enough that players will not fear to use it. (see above, as well.)
4) Not involve a painful amount of props.

LARPers -- does this seem reasonable to you?

Understand that I consider "freeform" to be a set of systems that, frankly, usually fulfill these criteria. They most often fail at #1.


Blogger Sven Holmström said...

You have read a few posts from me and you know where I'm coming from. Sometimes I collide a bit and I would really hate to be seen as a flamer.

But since this post is directed towards 'LARPers' and I definitely see myself as that I can't resist to comment.

This is totally from my own, quite small and most of all *very* narrow larp experience. I have never been to a fantasy larp, (more than of 95% the larps in Sweden are fantasy I guess) I have only been to rather short larps (the longest being 36 hours, the others much shorter) and they have either been depicting today or a realistic piece of history. These have all been of the freeform kind. (The different thing about the Nordic tradition is that fantasy larps often are freeform too. Not at all always.)

"1) Clear-cut and binding enough that it can resolve with a minimum of GM judgement."

I agree. Without GM judgement is the goal. My own history: I have never seen a GM at a larp. Not GM:s as they are considered in pen and paper anyway. Often the arrangers have strategic roles that might give inoput to change the flow of the game.
"2) Simple enough that it can be resolved without a GM to coach people in it."


"3) Quick enough that players will not fear to use it. (see above, as well.)"

This seems to me to be the most important. If it's not used, there is no rule. But it connects to point 2. If a GM is needed every time a rule is used, then the rule is very limited.

"4) Not involve a painful amount of props."

I agree! (But a lot of people wouldn't!) For me there are two reasons not going to fantasy larp; I frankly don't enjoy fantasy too much (but i would like to play Ars Magica again, since fifth ed. is awsome) and I would hate making clothes.

Once I played in a russian submarine. That was a quite huge prop. It was very cool to be inside a submarfine for 36 hours. But it made it very evident that cool props often is the least important part of a larp.

5:07 AM  
Blogger Sven Holmström said...

"4) Not involve a painful amount of props."

My answer to this was wasn't about the system, of course. See it as an annoying anecdote. But as you might imagine I still agree.

5:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did a bit of larp system development recently for a one-shot I ran here at Stanford (the Kabuki LARP thread in the Indie Game Forum at the Forge is still on the front page). I started with a fairly similar set of goals to you.

1. Conflict resolution should support a variety of stakes.
2. Conflict resolution should have a very small handling time relative to the amount of game time that the conflict takes. (discrepancy between real time and game time is minimized)
3. Mechanics should support the themes of the game, as well as infuse the game with color from the source literature.
4. Exercising the conflict resolution mechanics should actively contribute to the tension, excitement, and enjoyment of the game, not just be a way of declaring a victor.
5. The system should be easy to understand and quick to pick up.

I think that #1 was actually the real key to making it an interesting and enjoyable part of the game rather than just a different set of numbers to push around. In my experience (admittedly mostly limited to the Stanford larping scene), the link between the player and the character's mind is much more tightly controlled than in table-top; it's the only live-action game I've seen where the possibility of influencing someone's opinion in a mechanically-binding fashion was possible at the base conflict level (as opposed to with the use of a special power). It's possible I've just led a sheltered life, though.

Re: your #3. I took a slightly looser view on the term "quick enough". A givne conflict with the Kabuki LARP system took a non-trivial amount of time, but that time wasn't sitting around calculating; it was played out either in slow-motion combat or integrated into the inter-character debate. It looked much more like a conflict in Heroquest or Dogs in the Vineyard than, say, D&D.

Overall, I think that your goals Are basically a subset of mine. Actually, I think that your #4 was an implicit assumption; props are pretty much always non-essential flavor in Stanford LARPs. It was cool that we were able to get everybody into Japanese/Chinese clothing, but it was not at all necessary.

Of course, not all of what I tried to do is absolutely necessary for an effective LARP system, but I was trying to make something interesting and different,.

10:12 AM  
Blogger WiredNavi said...

I think that it's also important that every player be potentially capable of having some kind of meaningful, systematic interaction with the game at all times, or at least as much of the time as possible. In a tabletop, players often get a lot of downtime but they can still be involved through making suggestions, watching, etc. wheras it's much harder to make suggestions or be the 'passive observer' in a LARP.

Still thinking about whether there's anything else going on, but those are good places to start. I think it's also important to recognize that 'quick and simple enough' doesn't necessarily mean 'non-complex and fast' as long as there are systematic structures in place to make sure that the complexity and slowness don't interfere with the gameplay. For instance, the production system I'm working on for The Isles is quite complicated to work out, but the characters need to spend a significant amount of time actually roleplaying 'crafting' an item, during which time they must be relatively stationary, though they can do other things and interact with people. The rules and formulae for working out various crafting things are written in journals which the craftsmen can refer to and work out the numbers during this 'quiet time', so the fact that it's complex and slow doesn't interfere with anything, and in fact can be discussed in-character.

10:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just started wrestling with assumptions of LARP systems and games that I have been involved with in the thread below at a local gaming forum for the gamers in my home town.

So, this has been on my mind lately.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Jonas Barkå said...

I'm a close friend of Sven an got a larp background similar to his, although longer and a bit more diverse. I have been playing fantasy and Vampire and experienced GM:s in play.

The following thoughts is based on the view that free form is the natural state of larp, and every rule is an anomaly, although sometimes an necessary anomaly. Your experiences may differ and I respect that.

Here it comes:

As with ordinary rpg:s the system have to fit the game you are playing. If you play free form you are always limited in what can be played by:
- Physical limitations. No magic, no superpowers.
- Psycologial/Social limitations. Depending on the players they may not want to get hit for real or have sex in the game. No player (that I know of) want to get serioulsy hurt in the game.

If you want to do a game outside these limitations, then and *only* then do you need to use game mechanics (except rules for breaking the game if you are hurt or if you for some reason feels uncomfortable with something happening to your character.)

In this case the the mechanics should be made especially to fit the part of game not covered by free form systems. For example, most Swedish fantasy games use simple rules for combat (On hit to a limb and it is useless, one hit to torso and you are down) and equally simple rules for magic (when a mage cast a spell he calls out a special word and describes the effect). In my opinion this is a very good example on employing the minimum ammount of rules, while still having a game that works.

This is my take on it and probably the most common view here in Sweden.

Which types of stories do you want to be able to tell with your larp system?

I would also like to know more exactly what you mean by number four. Is it in game props like the submarine mentioned by Sven (it was cool!) or is it props for the game system itself like dice or playing cards?

2:17 AM  
Blogger Jonas Barkå said...

Also, can you elaborate on why you feel like number one is the goal most often not achieved by free form systems?

2:20 AM  
Blogger WiredNavi said...

Jonas -

...the thing about free-form is that if you restrict yourself to only things that can be directly and explicitly done in real life (and I do consider it a restriction!) then you don't need any GM, rules, judgement, or clarity at all. The problems arise whenever you want to insert something you can't directly and completely model safely - like, say, physical combat. As soon as two characters want to punch each other, you've got basically three options:
- Stop them from doing so using some kind of rule(s)
- Allow the combat to be modeled with some kind of rule(s)
- Have them actually beat the crap out of each other

I find the third option there to be unfun, and also the idea of restricting myself to a game where people can't or won't fight each other unfun - mostly because I like my games to deal with dramatic subjects which would involve passionate responses from the characters up to and including physically harming people.

If you have rules - even unspoken social ones - about 'you can't engage in physical combat' - then it's not really freeform, is it?

10:44 AM  
Blogger WiredNavi said...

Oh, also: While freeform may be the 'purest' kind of LARPing, by which I mean the kind which involves as much physical correlation between the characters and the players as possible, I don't think calling it the 'most natural' is accurate, and I definitely don't think it's the most entertaining or the best at doing many things which are worth doing with a LARP.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Sven Holmström said...

the thing about free-form is that if you restrict yourself to only things that can be directly and explicitly done in real life (and I do consider it a restriction!) then you don't need any GM, rules, judgement, or clarity at all.

Yes! I agree. I know Jonas really hates when I speak in his place, but I'm quite sure he agrees to.

and I definitely don't think it's the most entertaining or the best at doing many things which are worth doing with a LARP.

This is a very good way to discuss. I generally don't think it's worth having conflict resolution, since you lose more than you gain. That means: the content that requires simulation can be forbidden. You think that you might gain more by having them. You are totally understandable.

Interesting enough, while I generally oppose rules for conflict resolution in LARP I'm very interested in having other types of rules and structures.

I like the total freeform LARP:s, but I would like to try more things like scene cuts and techniques like preestablished dialogue in part of the LARP. In the 'fifteen minutes of fame'-technique used in the small LARP Viljan - I wasn't there:-( - everyone could stop the game one or two times, go to a special chair and have an internal monologue in front of the other players (much like in InSpectres, I guess).

I would imagine that a lot of players who want conflict resolution would think that these examples would steal far to much of their freedom. Taste is complicated.

5:41 PM  
Blogger WiredNavi said...

Okay, I'm with you guys, then. I just think that we prefer significantly different types of games; I like games where I can rely on the system to allow me to do things which I am not capable of doing. These things occur on many levels, from the completely setting-internal (such as throwing a fireball) to the completely game-external (such as being able to edit parts of the setting in accordance with my desires as a player).

1:38 PM  
Blogger Sven Holmström said...

"I just think that we prefer significantly different types of games;"


"to the completely game-external (such as being able to edit parts of the setting in accordance with my desires as a player)."

You do that during play, in a LARP? If you care to elaborate, how?

4:30 PM  
Blogger Jonas Barkå said...

WiredNavi -

I agree on your thoughts about the nature of rules in larp, as you in most part just wrote the exact same thing as I did.

For me, having no conflict resolution rules in a larp is better simply because I enjoy it more. Part of it comes from me believing other types of game to better handle that type of stories. But this is just my personal preference. As I also wrote many Swedish larps have combat rules as they find combat to be important. If you find something important for your game, and you cannot have it without mechanical rules for it, go ahead and add them. But that do not prove the general need for conflict resolution rules. (Note *prove*, opinions may vary.)

I do disagree on that a game couldn't be called free form if it includes a rule like "There is no violent interaction in this larp". Free form is just a label and the meaning depends on which type of things you apply it to. Ben used the phrase in a way that made me belive it meaning "no conflict resolution rules" and not "no rules, no predetermined setting, kill each other if you want". Free form is a phrase never used on larps in Sweden, so I do not necessary use it in the right way. If you got a better definition, please inform me.

/ Jonas

6:17 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

I generally don't think it's worth having conflict resolution, since you lose more than you gain.

I disagree that it is possible to not have a conflict resolution system -- there will be conflicts in play, and they will probably be resolved in some manner.

I assume you are talking about a lack of mechanical conflict resolution? I know this seems like a minor point but I really want to keep the terms straight.

Likewise, I want to shy away from declaring one set of techniques the "natural state" of LARP or role-playing. It is very antithetical to my Forge-trained sensibilities.


P.S. I will be writing an overview of American LARP, dividing it into categories (slow-time system / boffer system / MIT style / freeform system, I thinking), posting it sometime in the next few days. If you could do the same for Swedish LARP, using the terms that the Swedes employ, that'd be smashing.

10:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd be interested in seeing your LARP classification, if mostly because I have no idea how the Stanford tradition (if indeed the varied games we have here can really fit under the umbrella of a single 'tradition') fits into any sort of larger context of live-action play.

11:24 PM  
Blogger Jonas Barkå said...

I will do a writeup on Swedish larps, but it will not contain much of a structured theory, as that part isn't very developed.

Looking forward to your explanation of the American larps.

3:30 AM  
Blogger Jonas Barkå said...

I have posted the first part of my explanation of Nordic larps.

10:23 AM  

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