Rules are Magic: What Larp can Learn From Narrative RPGs

Rules are Magic: What Larp can Learn From Narrative RPGs

Introduction

Rules for larps have traditionally been framed as having two purposes; safety and simulation. It is time to move beyond that. Rules are magic.

In this essay, we argue that rules are an essential design element that can be used to fuel player experience rather than define its limits. We will do this by analyzing the design of pen and paper role-playing games (RPGs) that put story rather than simulation at their core, and exemplify how these games frame in-game interactions in terms of rules. We will explore how RPGs use rules to drive particular narratives, and promote specific emotional experiences, and compare and contrast this to how similar effects are achieved in classical larp design.

We conclude that the application of simple rules, such as those found in narrative RPGs, can be used to create the emergent narratives and the emotional experiences many seek in larp. Finally, we propose a design tool for creating larp rules with this focus.

The Narrative Revolution

Traditionally in RPGs, the game master invents a story to lead the players through. They will adapt underway to respond to player actions but, in essence, a so-called ‘adventure’ is planned out ahead of time. This way of thinking about narratives is challenged by RPGs emerging from the American indie scene, such as the ones we will highlight below: Apocalypse World,[1]Baker, D. Vincent, and Meguey Baker. 2016. Apocalypse World 2nd Edition. Lumpley Games. My Life with Master,[2]Czege, Paul. 2003. My Life with Master. Half Meme Press. and Ten Candles.[3]Dewey, Stephen. 2015. Ten Candles. Cavalry Games. These games shine a light on the way rules can be used to support and create narratives. Collectively we will call them narrative RPGs.

The traditions of RPGs and larps have developed side by side, and we believe that by studying narrative RPGs, we can gain insights into how to design experience-centric rules and meta techniques for Nordic larp, where the rules themselves are fundamental in forming the player experience. Narrative RPGs furthermore form a lens through which rules may be more easily studied: firstly, the rules are written down and explained in a way that a person previously unfamiliar with the game can understand. Secondly, since the designer is, in general, not present to explain how the game is played, they lean less on culture and more on the written rules themselves; in laying the groundwork for the experiences they aim to create.

What is a Rule?

We need rules in order to find beauty in playing together, as “they provide a framework for moments of delight to emerge.”[4]Stenros, Jaakko, and James Lórien MacDonald. 2020. “Beauty in Larp.” In What Do We Do When We Play?, edited by In Eleanor Saitta, Johanna Koljonen, Jukka Särkijärvi, Anne Serup Grove, Pauliina Männistö, and Mia Makkonen, 296–307. Solmukohta. Stenros and MacDonald make the analogy of football. The rules of football do not call for specific acts of athleticism, but they provide the context in which those acts can occur. In the same way, rules structure play in larp, to a degree where without explicit or implicit rules, play would not be possible.

We need rules for a number of reasons. One, is to know what the boundaries of play are, rules for physical, emotional, or psychological safety. A typical rule of physical safety is that you are not allowed to hit your co-player in the head with your boffer sword. These types of rules will not be discussed in this essay. The second type of rules forms the foundation for how we play together. They can often be boiled down to statements of, when A, then do B. For example, when you have been hit two times with a boffer then act as if you are injured or dying. Or, when you touch hands with someone in front of the face, then interpret the action as kissing. Making conscious decisions about these types of rules are crucial to a good larp design.

This is especially true because, not only do rules dictate what should happen when a particular event occurs, they also make these things happen by forming affordances for interaction. That is, guiding the players into which actions are possible, and expected to be taken within the game. Rules may be diegetic or non-diegetic, the consequences of which have previously been explored by e.g. Nordgren[5]Nordgren, Andie. 2008. “High Resolution Larping: Enabling Subtlety at Totem and Beyond.” In Playground Worlds: Creating and Evaluating Experiences of Role-Playing Games, edited by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola, 91–101. Ropecon ry. and Dahlberg.[6]Dahlberg, Johan. 2019. “High Resolution Larp Revisited.” August 28, 2019. https://nordiclarp.org/2019/08/28/high-resolution-larp-revisited/

In this essay we focus on rules that are intended to create particular narratives and promote emotional experiences. Rules have been discussed in the context of larp before, but under different headlines. A snapshot of the current understanding of rules from a larp design perspective is gleaned in Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences.[7]Koljonen, Johanna, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell, and Elin Nilsen, eds. 2019. Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences. Landsforeningen Bifrost. Two chapters in this book are of particular interest: “Designing the Mechanics You Need”[8]Wilson, Danny. 2019. “Designing the Mechanics You Need.” In Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences, edited by Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell, and Elin Nilsen. Landsforeningen Bifrost. and “Meta-Techniques.”[9]Westerling, Anna, and Anders Hultman. 2019. “Meta-Techniques.” In Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences, edited by Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell, and Elin Nilsen, 262–68. Landsforeningen Bifrost. Both these texts take a practical perspective on rules, and see rules as a part of the design. We are interested in how rules can form the core of the design. “Being a game designer is painting with rules and with causality to limit the possible choices that the players and their characters can make.”[10]Koljonen, Johanna. 2011. “On Games: Painting Life With Rules.” Nordic Larp Talks Copenhagen. March 1, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOVf06NCBGQ. This quote by Johanna Koljonen goes to the heart of the scope of rules as we explore them in this essay. Following Koljonen’s painting metaphor we might say that we are interested in how motifs emerge depending on the colors and tools used by the painter.

We do not aim to provide a definitive definition or theory of rules as they apply to larp. Rather, we will explore the topic and conclude with a method of rule design that can be used as part of the larp designers’ toolbox.

Rules and Meta-techniques

To a large extent, the foundation of rules as they are used in larps can be found in RPGs. These, in turn, emerged from strategy games simulating military combat. The goal of this type of rule set is to simulate a set of circumstances (to a degree deemed pleasurable by the designer). This provides a form of ‘physics engine’ for the fictional world. In a larp context, rules initially served roughly the same purpose: to simulate that which was not possible to be fully enacted by the players, in particular, combat. From there, they have evolved to serve a wide number of functions.

Historically, many larps in the Nordic tradition have opted for a rules-light approach, relying on a shared cultural understanding of ‘the way the game is played’ to dictate the activities possible within the game. There are however exceptions to this; in particular, games based on the popular RPG Vampire: the Masquerade[11]Rein•Hagen, Mark, Guy Davis, Jason Felix, and Leif Jones. 1998. Vampire: The Masquerade. White Wolf Game Studio. and its derivatives, have (at least in a Swedish context) integrated RPG-like character sheets with attributes, skills and powers marked down.

In this essay we will consider rules as a term both for what has traditionally been presented as rules (e.g. combat rules), and what Nordic larp calls meta-techniques. The difference between the two is mostly one of context.

The term meta-techniques was introduced around 2007.[12]“Nordic Larp Wiki – Meta-Technique.” n.d. Nordiclarp.org. Accessed August 28, 2020. https://nordiclarp.org/wiki/Meta-technique. There is no generally agreed upon definition, in the Nordic larp community, of what a meta-technique is. In general, it refers to any action in a game that is not fully present inside the diegesis. The widespread adoption of meta-techniques leads to an understanding in the larp community that this type of construct could be an essential design element. Much of the innovation of rules as a vehicle of narrative has happened in this space.

One reason that the term meta-technique gained such popularity, over the more general term rule, might be that it felt less “gamey.” This allowed larps with higher artistic ambitions to set themselves apart from their lowbrow cousins in both larp and RPG. Thus, the term rule has mostly been reserved for things like combat simulation. The presentation of certain types of rules in conjunction with the presentation of the larp, for example, the presence of meta-techniques or extensive combat rules, sends a strong cultural signal of what type of larp is being presented and consequently which players it tries to attract.

Building Narratives through Rules

Many different types of stories can be told in both larps and RPGs. While these narratives can emerge from pre-game materials, active runtime game-mastering, and player actions; rules in themselves can be made to shape the character actions and thereby create the narratives.

Apocalypse World (AW) is a narrative RPG that takes place in a largely undefined post-apocalyptic setting, leaning on the player’s shared understanding of post-apocalyptic tropes to set the scene. It is a world inhabited by characters such as the Angel, the Hardholder, and the Gunlugger. The general feeling conveyed by the game is that of high octane post-apocalyptic drama in the vein of Mad Max.

Rules Directing Fiction

The rule set of AW is centered around the concept of “moves.” These are made by the game master (GM) as well as the players. Moves are rules that are triggered when certain narrative conditions are met. They focus on fictional outcomes, as opposed to the simulation of the success or failure of a particular action. An example of what a move might look like is: if you meet the wasteland prophet, they will tell you an uncomfortable truth about you or someone you love.

Person in Apocalyptic gear with a facemask with the names of D. Vincent Baker & Meguey Baker and Apocalypse World

Cover of Apocalypse World 2nd Edition. Photo courtesy of D. Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker.

The role-playing conversation thus flows back and forth between the players and the GM, mediated by the rules. The type of narratives that emerge from this conversation comes from the players’ shared understanding of the tropes of the genre, as well as from the way the rules are written. An example of a player move that steers the fiction is the one associated with the character archetype “the battlebabe” and is called “visions of death.” The rules state that, when they enter battle they have to roll the dice, and, on a success, they get to name one non-player character who will live and one non-player character who will die. Note that this rule puts constraints on the fiction: the player that has rolled successfully does not get to choose to not have someone die, nor can the GM overrule the decision on who lives and who dies. When the battlebabe fights, there is always a risk that people will die. In this way, the rules show us that in the fiction of AW, life is cheap.

In current Nordic larp design, rules are sometimes used to direct narratives, or enact a particular storyline. The most direct way being to use a script; having a specific set of scenes that are played out, one after the other. Another way of achieving this, meanwhile hiding the script from the player, is through the concept of Fate.[13]“Nordic Larp Wiki – Fate.” n.d. Nordiclarp.org. Accessed August 19, 2020. https://nordiclarp.org/wiki/Fate. The fate mechanic involves providing players with instructions for what their characters should do at certain points in the fiction, for example, “when you meet your arch-enemy, you will challenge them to a duel.” These fates can be interconnected into a fate web, where one fate depends on the previous activation of a fate, in an effort to shape a specific storyline.

A similar effect is found in the larp A Nice Evening with the Family (2007), in which a number of theater plays are re-interpreted in larp form. Here, players read the play’s manuscript before the game starts, and decide together on how to play out the story. However, no explicit rules are in place here other than the instruction to interpret the original play: the larp leans on the players’ shared improvisation to ensure that the story is enacted in the spirit of the original play. How far from the original manuscript this deviates is up to the player’s decisions prior to, and during, the game.

The reason why it is interesting to compare the fate mechanic, A Nice Evening with the Family, and AW, is because of their different approaches to the concept of story. Fate mechanics try to steer play in a particular direction without revealing the big picture to the players beforehand. In A Nice Evening with the Family the narrative is firmly directed by the scripts, in such a way that players can roughly know beforehand what will happen, and can help each other steer in that direction. In AW, neither players, nor the GM, knows beforehand what the story will be. Still, the rules allow the player to make some probable assessments of what components the narrative will contain.

Co-Creation through Rules

In fact, AW goes beyond the moves detailed in the previous section, when it comes to not planning a particular storyline. The game master is specifically instructed not to plan neither a world nor a storyline, but to let it emerge from the characters’ in-game actions, and from the rules. A core concept of the game is presented as part of the GMs “agenda,” and that is to “play to find out what happens.” This tenet of the game separates it from many other RPGs, and indeed also from many larps, as it expressly states not to use the game as a way of telling a set story, but to let the narrative emerge from playing the game.

One way this agenda is enacted is through game rules. Part of these rules are the GM “principles”, including things such as:

  • “Barf forth apocalyptica”
  • “Name everyone, make everyone human”
  • “Look through the cross-hairs”

These rules have different functions. For example “barf forth apocalyptica”, is an aesthetic instruction formulated not as a suggestion, but as a rule. The game should be filled with the stuff of apocalyptic imagination. Barren landscapes, grotesque cults, and broken souls.

Other rules take a more direct role in shaping the narratives. Let’s for example consider the interplay of “name everyone, make everyone human” and “look through the cross-hairs. The first rule instructs the GM that every NPC should be a human of flesh and blood, with motivations of their own and a name. The second instructs the GM that nothing is permanent in the world of AW. Places and people should perish, and the GM should be liberal with letting them go down in flames. These two rules, together, create narratives where there is a real sense of loss when the characters eventually lose those that they desperately try to hold on to. Note again that these are presented as rules. This way, decisions are transferred from the GM to the rules. It pushes the GM clearly into a certain narrative style, while still allowing them to “play to find out what happens.” This way, the rules even out the co-creative balance between players and GM.

In larp, co-creation outside of the actions of the characters has mostly been seen either in allowing players to create their own characters or factions within the game world, or by directed workshops prior to the game. The first approach is common in sandbox larps, where the designer only aims to provide a canvas for the players to fill with their own ideas. This is for example the case in the Swedish madmaxian post-apocalyptic larp campaign Blodsband Reloaded.[14]Blodsband (2014-). The second approach has been used by games such as Turings Fråga (2013-) (eng. Turing’s Question), a game about what it means to be human, centered around the exercise of distinguishing humans from artificial intelligence proposed by Alan Turing.[15]Turing, A. M. 1950. “I.—Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind: a Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy LIX (236): 433–60.

Some close larp-cousins to the principles of AW, where narrative co-creation is framed in a rule-like manner, can be found in general play-style instructions such as play to lose[16]Piironen, Willer, and Kristoffer Thurøe. 2014. “An Introduction to the Nordic Player Culture.” In The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp, edited by Eleanor Saitta, Marie Holm-Andersen, and Jon Back, 33–36. Knutpunkt. and play to lift.[17]Vejdemo, Susanne. 2017. “Play to Lift, Not Just to Lose.” In Shuffling the Deck, edited by Annika Waern and Johannes Axner, 143–46. Carnegie Mellon University: ETC Press. While sometimes these are explicitly presented as part of the instructions provided to players prior to a larp, they are often taken more as an implicit part of Nordic larp culture.

This approach to stories in narrative RPGs questions the GMs role as the main director of the game. Instead, it encourages all participants (GM and players alike) to be equal contributors to the activity. A similar view does exist in larp: the designers may set the implicit and explicit boundaries of the game, but the players themselves are equally important – if not more- informing the actual experience.

By understanding the role rules play in forming fiction, we can both turn players into more active co-creators within the narrative framework, and form a bridge between ‘anything goes style’ sandbox games and the more tightly controlled “scripted” larps. The affordances provided by explicit rules make the narrative direction of the game clearer, and might be a way to fulfil the agenda of “play to find out what happens” in the context of larp design.

Rules Deconstructing Genre

Image of a person in a prison with a monstrous person on the outside of the cage with the words My Life with Master: a role-playing game by Paul Czege

Cover of My Life with Master. Photo courtesy of Paul Czege.

One way of understanding the role of the RPG or larp designer is as an interpreter of genre. By deconstructing the type of narrative they want to create, they may use this understanding to make rules from which the desired type of stories emerge.

In the RPG My Life With Master,[18]Czege, Paul. 2003. My Life with Master. Half Meme Press. the players take on the roles of minions to an evil mastermind, in a Victorian horror setting. The game is intended to play out as a story of gothic horror, as understood by the movie genre.[19]Costikyan, Greg. 2003. “My Life with Master.” Internet Archive. September 22, 2003. https://web.archive.org/web/20120716191105/http://costik.com/weblog/2003_09_01_blogchive.html#106427832498370748 The minions live a life of fear and self-loathing, and because of that instill fear in the town folk, until one day they, through their love for the people in town, find the courage to overthrow and kill their master.

Instead of using the rules to simulate a realistic world, the attributes and rules are based around a literary deconstruction and understanding of gothic horror narratives. Each game begins by creating the “master,” an evil mastermind that everybody fears.[20]Darlington, Steve. 2003. “Review of My Life with Master – RPGnet RPG Game Index.” September 8, 2003. https://www.RPG.net/reviews/archive/9/9681.phtml The master is created through a step-by-step system, and once the master is created, the player characters and local townspeople can be created in a similar fashion and in relation to the master.

The player characters are torn between their fear for their master, and their love of the townspeople. This is mirrored in game, through the main character attributes: the only attribute of the master is the ‘fear’ they cause, while the townspeople are represented by the single attribute of “reason.” Meanwhile, the players use the three attributes of “self-loathing,” “weariness,” and “love” in different combinations, depending on whether they try to resist their master, follow through on their commands, or seek out the love of someone in town. These attributes fluctuate during the game depending on successful or failed dice rolls, naturally climbing towards a situation where the player’s character can finally dare to oppose and kill their master, thereby ending the game. The game attributes thus become a representation for the feelings of the player’s character, and the rules work to naturally create a narrative that follows the genre format.

While it is common for larps to replicate literary or movie genres (e.g. Fortune & Felicity (2017), College of Wizardry (2014-)), this is usually accomplished through written larp visions, descriptions of the inspiring genre, and suggested inspirational reading and movies. This can often lead to a lot of reading for the players, while still risking to be ambiguous in how the players interpret the material. Even though it is often non-explicit, and arguably often non-intentional, these suggestions are mirrored in the game through rules, with different degrees of success. One successful example can be seen in how the deliberately short healing time and impossibility to die in the post-apocalyptic Blodsband Reloaded.[21]Blodsband (2014-). leads to fast and fierce pulp-battles where it’s easy to choose the violent solution.

A more explicit deconstruction of literature, and reinterpretation as rules can be found in Inside Hamlet (2014-), where the game wanted to recreate a classic revenge-tragedy, beginning slowly but where a majority of players die at the end. The rule system for making this happen was quite simple: The game was separated into three acts, where different levels of violence were acceptable. In the first act guns could not be drawn, and violence would not happen in public. In the second act guns could be drawn but not fired, and violence would lead to injury but not death. In the third act all conflict needed to end in at least one death. This explanation through rules leads to an understanding of risk for all players, and also to an understanding of the intended pacing of the game. Even if you would not pick up on the intentions, the rules forced all players into pacing their life-death choices according to the designers’ intention.

While the examples above discussed re-implementations of older rules, a new rule system can open up completely new forms of play, sometimes echoing well beyond their original use case. While not explicated as rules, the development of Ars Amandi[22]Wieslander, Emma. 2004. “Rules of Engagement.” In Beyond Role and Play: Tools, Toys and Theory for Harnessing the Imagination, edited by Markus Montala and Jaakko Stenros, 181–86. Ropecon ry. for the larp Mellan Himmel och Hav (2003) was an important part in opening up the game to romantic and sexual narratives. Previously, these types of scenes had been performed mainly as off game discussions or awkward semi-out-of-character roleplaying. In making and presenting a rule system for romantic touch and sex in a way that could be agreed on beforehand by all players, the game made it possible to use this as a central theme of the larp. In this way, a rule created the possibility to play in genres such as explorations of gender roles and Jane Austine romance, and also opening up the larp design discussion more broadly to topics such as romance, sexuality, and gender.

Emotional Experiences through Rules

Both RPGs and larps aim to create powerful emotional experiences. There is no silver bullet to achieve this, but rules can form a crucial part in enabling these experiences. While the rules themselves do not create the experiences, they can actively set the stage to coax them forth.

Rules that create a feeling of tension are found in most RPGs, where the outcome of a dice-roll can determine if the dragon is slain or not. What about rules that conjure up other emotions? One example of a rule set that in itself creates a sense of tragedy, horror, and hopelessness is found in the narrative RPG Ten Candles.

Image of people in a dark place with flashlights with monsters lurking

Cover of Ten Candles. Photo courtesy of Stephen Dewey.

Ten Candles is a tragic horror RPG meant to be played in one session in a dark room around ten tea candles lit by the players at the beginning of the session.[23]Dewey, Stephen. 2015. Ten Candles. Cavalry Games. The world has been bereft of light, and some time ago “they” arrived out of the darkness. This is a game without any hope of survival.

A simple dice mechanic determines the outcome of challenging and oppositional situations. Anytime a dice-roll is failed, one of the candles are darkened, and the game moves on to the next scene. Additionally, if a candle is darkened accidentally, the scene also ends. This continues until there is only one candle left and the characters meet their final fate. At character creation, players write down traits associated with the characters on index cards. These are then literally burned in order to allow for the re-rolling of dice. At that point, the trait in question is to be played out in the scene, for good or ill.

This connection between dice-roll mechanics and the physical manifestation of the encroaching darkness serves to create a very strong feeling of tragedy and horror. The random element creates a sense of agency for the player, even if the odds are stacked against them in the long run. Establishing this sense of control over the situation is crucial in building to the final end of the mechanic, namely gradually removing agency as the situation becomes more grim.

In larp, an example of coupling a randomness mechanic to an activity with the potential for great emotional impact is the “lottery of death mechanic” used in Just a Little Lovin’ (2011-).[24]Waern, Annika. 2012. “Just a Little Lovin’, and Techniques for Telling Stories in Larp.” June 12, 2012. https://annikawaern.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/just-a-little-lovin-and-techniques-for-telling-stories-in-larp/ This larp builds its narrative around the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic  in the 1980’s New York LGBTQ+ community. In the lottery of death players get to pick a number of tickets to place into the lottery based on the sexual risk taking of their characters. The more risk they perceive that their character has taken, the more tickets. Waern (2012) describes the meta-scenes in which the lottery takes place as “among the most emotional in the game.”

Why is the emotional impact of this scene so great? From a rules point of view, the agency of the players (deciding how many tickets to pick) coupled with the chance element in who lives and who dies creates a strong emotional engagement in the scene. Had the outcome been pre-planned, it is possible that it would have been easier for the players to anticipate it and prepare for it emotionally, thus limiting its emotional impact.

A game using similar rules when it comes to character creation as those seen in Ten Candles, and that couples this to a gradual loss of humanity in crisis, is The South Will Rise Again (2018). This is a larp based on the tropes of zombie-survival; the characters struggle with each other, putting them at peril to the outside zombie threat. In this larp, the characters are created by writing down things like the names of friends, things you love, and your connections to other players on index cards. In the rules, the players are instructed how to write this down in a way that imbues each thing with backstory and emotions. Throughout the game, these are then used as betting chips to win conflicts and survive the zombie threat. The player(s) with the most cards wins the conflict, but all betted cards are lost. In a meta-scene, each lost card is read, and in quiet contemplation, dropped to the floor. That way, all characters gradually lose their humanity in order to survive, and the rules drive the feeling of loss in the game.

These examples highlight how rules can be used to elicit specific emotional responses. The excitement that randomness mechanics elicit is one that we see in many RPGs. The quintessential moment of, “will we slay the dragon or not?” But the examples above show how other emotions, such as sorrow, horror or loss of one’s humanity can also be targeted. Where the rules guide play towards inevitable defeat but create emotionally resonant narratives along the way. A stronger understanding of how rules and emotions interact should prove a worthwhile effort for the entire larp community.

A Design Tool for Narrative Rules

In this essay we have discussed how rules go beyond simulation and safety in Nordic larp. They can direct narratives and enable emotional experiences. We have done so through the lens of three narrative RPGs, with which we have exemplified different aspects of this topic. We have shown how the rules of Apocalypse World direct the game towards particular types of narratives. With the example of My Life With Master we have explored how its rules deconstruct genre and provide a framework for the construction of novel emergent narratives of the same type. Finally, we have demonstrated how the rules of Ten Candles give rise to specific emotional experiences of horror and tragedy.

We believe this understanding of rules as a narrative device can be useful for making larps. One suggestion for how to design larp rules is the following method:

  1. Decide on the type of story you wish to tell with your larp. Then deconstruct it into its basic elements. Focus on how and why things happen, not on where and when: avoid thinking in terms of set scenes that should occur during the course of the game.
  2. For every element of the deconstruction, make sure to connect it to at least one rule. Try to make the basic assumptions of how the game is played explicitly instead of leaning on a shared cultural understanding.
  3. Iterate, polish and minimize the rule set to only contain that which actually drives the narrative. While at the same time taking care not to place an unnecessary cognitive load on the players in remembering and following the rules.

Let us apply this method to a small example. Let us say that we want to make a two-person game about a background checker interviewing a political candidate to find out if they have any skeletons in the closet (which of course they have). We want to create a sense of tension and a feeling of playing a game of cat and mouse.

The elements that we find in deconstructing this situation are:

  1. an increasingly tense conversation
  2. Secrets being laid bare, one by one
  3. An emotionally escalating situation for both parties: for the interviewer a sense of revelation, for the interviewee shame and a fear of being found out

What rules may we construct that connect to the things we describe above? We may decide to set the following rules. Which element they connect to is denoted in parenthesis.

  • The game is played sitting on opposite sides of a table, and takes place as a conversation. (A)
  • Before the start of the game, decide who is the interviewer and the interviewee. The interviewee decides on three secrets for their character. They write them down on index cards, and place them face down on the table. (B)
  • Anytime your character lies during the game, you must cross your fingers in a way clearly visible to the other player. (B)
  • When you lock eyes, a staring contest is initiated (C). Whoever looks away first loses. If the interviewer wins, a card is revealed (B). If the interviewee wins, a card is torn, and the secret will consequently not be revealed.
  • The game ends when every secret has been revealed or torn.

Our intention here is not to give you a fully playable game, but to illustrate the method described above. Using this method, and the example, we encourage you to experiment with larp rules and invent your own methods for creating them!

Rules, Rituals, and Magic

While rules can certainly constitute almost the entire design of a game, of course, there are many other factors that also play a part. For the sake of argument, in this text we strip things down to their base components. In reality, a complete and enjoyable game, most often, needs more than rules.

When Stenros and MacDonald discuss beauty in larp, they highlight that the larp as played is “emergent play” arising in the present, and how “larp magic” often arises from serendipitous moments. This magic cannot be decided on in advance. In fact, we argue that it is counterproductive to do so. The role of the designer is more akin to that of a gardener than that of a playwright. A key part of growing the garden of larp is putting its rules into place. Can you walk on the lawns of this garden? Are you allowed to eat the fruit? Is it mandatory to take your shoes off and walk in the stream?

Conjuring up larp magic is not an easy task. Like a ritual, it requires the chalk circles to be drawn just right. The right words need to be spoken precisely at the stroke of midnight. If you follow those rules, then, finally, you might just get a glimpse of it.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank our editor Nadja Lipsyc for her helpful feedback in the development of this text, and Sara Engström for reading early and late versions of the manuscript and suggesting improvements.

References

Baker, D. Vincent, and Meguey Baker. 2016. Apocalypse World 2nd Edition. Lumpley Games.

Costikyan, Greg. 2003. “My Life with Master.” Internet Archive. September 22, 2003. https://web.archive.org/web/20120716191105/http://costik.com/weblog/2003_09_01_blogchive.html#106427832498370748

Czege, Paul. 2003. My Life with Master. Half Meme Press.

Dahlberg, Johan. 2019. “High Resolution Larp Revisited.” August 28, 2019. https://nordiclarp.org/2019/08/28/high-resolution-larp-revisited/

Darlington, Steve. 2003. “Review of My Life with Master – RPGnet RPG Game Index.” September 8, 2003. https://www.RPG.net/reviews/archive/9/9681.phtml

Dewey, Stephen. 2015. Ten Candles. Cavalry Games.

Koljonen, Johanna. 2011. “On Games: Painting Life With Rules.” Nordic Larp Talks Copenhagen. March 1, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOVf06NCBGQ

Koljonen, Johanna, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell, and Elin Nilsen, eds. 2019. Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences. Landsforeningen Bifrost.

Nordgren, Andie. 2008. “High Resolution Larping: Enabling Subtlety at Totem and Beyond.” In Playground Worlds: Creating and Evaluating Experiences of Role-Playing Games, edited by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola, 91–101. Ropecon ry.

“Nordic Larp Wiki – Fate.” n.d. Nordiclarp.org. Accessed August 19, 2020. https://nordiclarp.org/wiki/Fate

“Nordic Larp Wiki – Meta-Technique.” n.d. Nordiclarp.org. Accessed August 28, 2020. https://nordiclarp.org/wiki/Meta-technique

Piironen, Willer, and Kristoffer Thurøe. 2014. “An Introduction to the Nordic Player Culture.” In The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp, edited by Eleanor Saitta, Marie Holm-Andersen, and Jon Back, 33–36. Knutpunkt.

Rein•Hagen, Mark, Guy Davis, Jason Felix, and Leif Jones. 1998. Vampire: The Masquerade. White Wolf Game Studio.

Stenros, Jaakko, and James Lórien MacDonald. 2020. “Beauty in Larp.” In What Do We Do When We Play?, edited by In Eleanor Saitta, Johanna Koljonen, Jukka Särkijärvi, Anne Serup Grove, Pauliina Männistö, and Mia Makkonen, 296–307. Solmukohta.

Turing, A. M. 1950. “I.—Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind: a Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy LIX (236): 433–60.

Vejdemo, Susanne. 2017. “Play to Lift, Not Just to Lose.” In Shuffling the Deck, edited by Annika Waern and Johannes Axner, 143–46. Carnegie Mellon University: ETC Press.

Waern, Annika. 2012. “Just a Little Lovin’, and Techniques for Telling Stories in Larp.” June 12, 2012. https://annikawaern.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/just-a-little-lovin-and-techniques-for-telling-stories-in-larp/

Westerling, Anna, and Anders Hultman. 2019. “Meta-Techniques.” In Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences, edited by Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell, and Elin Nilsen, 262–68. Landsforeningen Bifrost.

Wieslander, Emma. 2004. “Rules of Engagement.” In Beyond Role and Play: Tools, Toys and Theory for Harnessing the Imagination, edited by Markus Montala and Jaakko Stenros, 181–86. Ropecon ry.

Wilson, Danny. 2019. “Designing the Mechanics You Need.” In Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences, edited by Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell, and Elin Nilsen. Landsforeningen Bifrost.

Cover photo: Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay.

This article will be published in the upcoming companion book Book of Magic and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:

Dahlberg, Johan, and Jon Back. 2021. “Rules are Magic: What Larp can Learn From Narrative RPGs.” In Book of Magic, edited by Kari Kvittingen Djukastein, Marcus Irgens, Nadja Lipsyc, and Lars Kristian Løveng Sunde. Oslo, Norway: Knutepunkt, 2021. (In press).

 

References

References
1Baker, D. Vincent, and Meguey Baker. 2016. Apocalypse World 2nd Edition. Lumpley Games.
2Czege, Paul. 2003. My Life with Master. Half Meme Press.
3Dewey, Stephen. 2015. Ten Candles. Cavalry Games.
4Stenros, Jaakko, and James Lórien MacDonald. 2020. “Beauty in Larp.” In What Do We Do When We Play?, edited by In Eleanor Saitta, Johanna Koljonen, Jukka Särkijärvi, Anne Serup Grove, Pauliina Männistö, and Mia Makkonen, 296–307. Solmukohta.
5Nordgren, Andie. 2008. “High Resolution Larping: Enabling Subtlety at Totem and Beyond.” In Playground Worlds: Creating and Evaluating Experiences of Role-Playing Games, edited by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola, 91–101. Ropecon ry.
6Dahlberg, Johan. 2019. “High Resolution Larp Revisited.” August 28, 2019. https://nordiclarp.org/2019/08/28/high-resolution-larp-revisited/
7Koljonen, Johanna, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell, and Elin Nilsen, eds. 2019. Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences. Landsforeningen Bifrost.
8Wilson, Danny. 2019. “Designing the Mechanics You Need.” In Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences, edited by Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell, and Elin Nilsen. Landsforeningen Bifrost.
9Westerling, Anna, and Anders Hultman. 2019. “Meta-Techniques.” In Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences, edited by Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell, and Elin Nilsen, 262–68. Landsforeningen Bifrost.
10Koljonen, Johanna. 2011. “On Games: Painting Life With Rules.” Nordic Larp Talks Copenhagen. March 1, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOVf06NCBGQ.
11Rein•Hagen, Mark, Guy Davis, Jason Felix, and Leif Jones. 1998. Vampire: The Masquerade. White Wolf Game Studio.
12“Nordic Larp Wiki – Meta-Technique.” n.d. Nordiclarp.org. Accessed August 28, 2020. https://nordiclarp.org/wiki/Meta-technique.
13“Nordic Larp Wiki – Fate.” n.d. Nordiclarp.org. Accessed August 19, 2020. https://nordiclarp.org/wiki/Fate.
14Blodsband (2014-).
15Turing, A. M. 1950. “I.—Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind: a Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy LIX (236): 433–60.
16Piironen, Willer, and Kristoffer Thurøe. 2014. “An Introduction to the Nordic Player Culture.” In The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp, edited by Eleanor Saitta, Marie Holm-Andersen, and Jon Back, 33–36. Knutpunkt.
17Vejdemo, Susanne. 2017. “Play to Lift, Not Just to Lose.” In Shuffling the Deck, edited by Annika Waern and Johannes Axner, 143–46. Carnegie Mellon University: ETC Press.
18Czege, Paul. 2003. My Life with Master. Half Meme Press.
19Costikyan, Greg. 2003. “My Life with Master.” Internet Archive. September 22, 2003. https://web.archive.org/web/20120716191105/http://costik.com/weblog/2003_09_01_blogchive.html#106427832498370748
20Darlington, Steve. 2003. “Review of My Life with Master – RPGnet RPG Game Index.” September 8, 2003. https://www.RPG.net/reviews/archive/9/9681.phtml
21Blodsband (2014-).
22Wieslander, Emma. 2004. “Rules of Engagement.” In Beyond Role and Play: Tools, Toys and Theory for Harnessing the Imagination, edited by Markus Montala and Jaakko Stenros, 181–86. Ropecon ry.
23Dewey, Stephen. 2015. Ten Candles. Cavalry Games.
24Waern, Annika. 2012. “Just a Little Lovin’, and Techniques for Telling Stories in Larp.” June 12, 2012. https://annikawaern.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/just-a-little-lovin-and-techniques-for-telling-stories-in-larp/

Authors

Johan Dahlberg is a Swedish larper and larp designer. He holds a PhD in molecular medicine, and he loves a good story.
Jon Back (PhD) is a researcher and lecturer at Uppsala University. His research focus is in technology-enhanced playful design in public settings. He's got a background in many game formats. In his design work he is inspired by larp, board games, computer games, pervasive games, children's games, storytelling, and street performance. He is proud to present himself not only as a researcher, but also as a designer. Back has produced multiple larps, interactive playgrounds, board-games and card games, as well as having performed playful performance art, and organized many different types of gaming events. http://www.jonback.se/
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