I’m spending a lot of my time thinking about rule systems at the moment – I want to get the basis of system that we’re going to use for the upcoming LARP sorted out over the next month, so I’ve been thinking a lot about what systems are for in these games we play. There are plenty of very successful games out there run in a loose freeform way, where there are no real rules other than a sort of shared understanding of the style of play, within which the outcome of every contentious interaction is negotiated between players on an ad-hoc basis. And rules often slow the game down, breaking immersion and draining dramatic tension. So why have them at all?
(Digression: I really ought to give “the upcoming LARP” a working title just to I’ve got a definite article for it – NextLARP? FutureLARP? I dunno, anyone got any preferences? Anyone care? I had a title for it, six months ago, but I’ve rather consciously put that on one side until I see what shape it’s taking in a few months time – I want the LARP to shape the title, not the other way around.)
So, I’ve come to the following conclusions about what I think they’re for. I’m aware that they’d have other uses for other people, and I’m not seeking to provide an abstract answer to “what is the purpose of having rules in a LARP?” so much as I am trying to define “what is the purpose of the rules in a LARP I am running?”
The rules form an agreed basis for the world. Kind of like the laws of physics, I guess. They provide both IC and OOC context for the actions characters take. Effectively, they’re the grown up, formalised version of the Cowboys-and-Indians “Bang! I shot you, you’re dead!” (“No I’m not!”, “Yes, you are, I shot you!” etc.) They’re the agreed basis for “fair” dispute resolution.
I’ve put “fair” there in quotes, because there’s actually no requirement that the rules be fair in the traditional sense. Depending on the kind of game being run, it might even be desirable to have the rules favour particular outcomes, or even particular players. Nonetheless, the rules form the agreed basis for cooperation between everyone involved in building the LARP – they ensure that everyone is on the same page about what’s possible.
This is particularly important because I like to run games that have a fairly strong fantastical element, and I want us to have an agreed basis for what that element is, can do, and what an appropriate reaction to that might be (in or out of character – it’s possible to have a lot of fun when the player know something the character doesn’t – indeed, it’s often a key ingredient in some of the best moments in games).
The rules exist to facilitate dramatic play – they exist to facilitate both external dramatic conflict between two (or more) characters, and in the sorts of games I like to run, some level of internal conflict within each individual character. I’m not saying one can’t do internal conflict without rules, that’s obviously a rubbish idea, and I would expect most characters to have (many) additional internal conflicts that were not rules-defined, but on some level, I want a rules set that takes some of that internal conflict, and in some way externalises it so that each character’s internal dilemmas have to affect other characters.
3. To Get Out Of The Way
It’s not strictly a “why have rules” in abstract, so much as a “why have a particular set of rules”, but it’s important enough to me that I want to include it as a fundamental: one of the purposes of a system has to be to do it’s job as swiftly as possible in order to allow everyone to get back to the less systematised part of the roleplaying. A freefrom negotiation style f play contains the possibility of getting bogged down from time to time if two players can’t come to a consensus, so one of the reasons we have rules is to prevent that, but we have to do it in a way that is more efficient than the problem being solved, or we might as well just get bogged down in a freeform way.
4. To Simulate Randomness And Risk
I think this is surprisingly important. Good drama contains surprises. The real world is not predicable. And, for the kind of games I run: magic should be, well, magic. A little bit scary and strange. I think a good system should contain the possibility for a shock upset now and again, and unexpected outcome that no party in a conflict could reasonably expect. Not often, but sometimes. We’ve all played tabletop games where one freakish dice roll changed an important dynamic in the game, haven’t we? I think a good LARP system should contain just a little touch of that. A good set of rules exist to very occasionally throw an unexpected spanner in the works. Tabletop games generally factor this in with dice, but a lot of LARP systems are diceless, so how can we bring that randomness in?
5. As An Indicator Of Key Moments
This is a minor thing, but I also like them to be used in a way such that they indicate on a meta level that something is happening that is dramatically relevant, that, if you like, a turning point has been reached.
It doesn’t matter whether that’s fighting, persuasion, powers of observation and deduction, or even something like seduction. (Having written that, I’d just like it to be clear: no game I run will ever contain a mechanical option to accomplish the seduction of a PC – the idea raises far too many consent issues, I just mention it as theoretical example.) The point is that some times it’s actually good to invoke a system to indicate that something is either not a simple task, or when between PCs, to indicate that that is a point of conflict between the individuals concerned, that what is happening here is in some way important.
I think those are the key reasons to have a ruleset, rather than a more freeform approach.