In just a few days, I’ll be shipping over to Europe to get on a boat and join the hundreds of other LARPers heading to this year’s Nordic LARP conference, Solmukohta. This is my fourth year in attendance, completing my first progression of attending the conferences in all four Nordic LARP countries – Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. It’s been my pleasure to get a chance to meet LARPers from all over and spend time learning about LARP practices not only from around the United States, but from across the world.
As I’m preparing for the conference, and a couple of talks I’ll be giving there, I ran across an article on LARPING.org that gave me pause. I’m preparing a talk on exclusionary practices in LARP, and this article highlighted one of my pet peeves when discussing LARP accessibility. I’m a big proponent of games being as accessible to people of all kinds, and finding design choices that can enable a game to be more open to everyone. Challenges to accessibility include tackling difficult social issues, economic inequalities and class differences, LARP culture barriers between communities, or even issues of physical accessibility. It’s that last one that I’d like to talk about briefly today.
The article in question that brought this issue up is called LARP Rules! A Mechanics Spotlight, which attempts to deconstruct the mechanization of actions within LARPs and how complex large-scale rules systems can become. The thesis of this article is that there is a tension between the narrative that is being developed in LARPs and the rules sets, since the narratives develop through the diegetic interactions between players while they are immersed in scene. The more complex the rules set, the article suggests, the more difficult it becomes to remain immersed in the narrative and the more disruptive the rules are to play. The article states this idea in what it’s calling the LARP Core Tenants, which looks startlingly like yet another definition of what is a LARP, ala the ad nauseum discussions of ‘what is a game’ that plague game studies conversations the world over.
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.
Aside from the fact that I find the reference to narrative developed by players as a “waste byproduct” a little distasteful, the last part is where I mean to put my focus. Namely, the idea that anything that breaks immersion is “anathema” to play and immersive narrative development between players because, as the quote states, “a rule designed to represent an action is not the action.”
This is further explained later in the article when an example is provided from the NERO rulebook. The article cites a skill called Parry, which is often included in many boffer/live combat rules systems that have skill calls. The text of Parry states that it allows a player to block an oncoming attack by vocalizing the word “Parry” and then goes on to lay out and explain the exact ways in which Parry is used (what kinds of attacks can be blocked by Parry, in what circumstances, etc). In critiquing the skill Parry, the article states that constant vocalization of unneeded skills which can simply be accomplished by physical action breaks immersion further. The article goes on to say:
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.
The idea then is that since people can simply dodge an attack with their physical weapon, a skill like Parry is then superfluous. And here is where I disagree, because this is not the first time I have heard this argument against skill calls within live combat/boffer games. The argument goes that if you’re playing a game where immersion is the intent, then using vocalizations to simply say you’re doing something instead of actually doing it breaks the believability of the world. If you’re following this line of logic, as stated above, and “a rule designed to represent an action is not the action” then simply calling out Parry impedes play and should be removed.
Except games with skill calls provide a vital resource to people who do not come out to games prepared to let their entire play experience depend on their actual physical capability. Skill calls allow, through representational game design, for players of different ability levels and physical capabilities to play characters that may be more physically capable then they are in the real world. To put it plainly: skill calls level the playing field and give those who are differently abled the chance to still play the kickass warrior, the powerful paladin, at a comparable capability as a player who comes in more physically able.
This representational aspect of the game, while it does require players to exert their imagination to count a vocalized word the same way they might a whack on the arm, allows the game that includes them to be more accessible to more players. This includes people who might not be as physically fit as the most active, agile, powerful warriors in the game. It compensates for nearly every ability and capability level (barring those who lack the ability or have difficulty speaking). And for those who are disabled, it allows for a game that uses the human body in what is considered its “normal, physically whole state” as the game vector by which you engage with the play space to enter play with simulated tools to put them on the same level as more physically able players.
I find the discussions of how skill can be disruptive a disturbing double standard in the discussion of what is or is not immersion breaking. In a game medium that requires me to look at a person wearing plastic costume elf ears and accept that they are, indeed, elven royalty, or expects me to acknowledge that a human dressed in a nice suit is a vampire prince, others are unwilling to acknowledge that a word spoken is the same as an action taken. Apparently a word is one step too far to stretch the imagination, even if it allows the game to include more people fairly.
Now, the entirety of the article’s discussion about rules being disruptive to narrative play, is not a new one. Game studies thinkers have been publishing articles about this in regards to video games for years (see: Patrick Crogan’s “Blade Runners: Speculation on Narrative and Interactivity”* or Jesper Juul’s “Games Telling Stories? A Brief Note on Games and Narratives“** for further reading). Yet the conversation takes on an entirely more insidious direction when we discuss that tension in regards to representational actions and skills in LARPs. While a narrative may suffer for the limitations and intrusions of mechanics within a video game, the game itself is presumably still playable and the player still capable of interacting with the play space if they are differently abled (the difficulty of controller use and video game medium usage for the disabled aside, as that is an entirely different topic). Yet in the race to provide more immersive, WYSIWYG narrative experiences for LARPs, it seems the proponents for skill-less systems are willing to sacrifice accessibility on the altar of some purist notion of seamless play rather than consider what representational rules do provide for players.
Full disclosure: I am a disabled LARPer who plays in the game mentioned in the article, Dystopia Rising. And thanks to skill calls within that game, I am capable as a disabled woman (who alternates between having difficulty walking and using a wheelchair) to attend game and still participate in combat situations. I utilize skill calls to augment my physical differences to allow me to be an effective combatant, capable of being a part of the play just like any able-bodied player. It’s for this reason that I speak from a perspective informed by experience, and concern for the future of my favorite game medium.
The above article (though in a rather arched and unforgiving tone) offers forth the notion that early LARP design suffered from a complexity born of simulationist roots that should have been outgrown in the race for new and better ways to embrace immersive live play. Yet in the process of advocating for stripped-down systems, this argument and those like it postulate play spaces that restrict interaction rather than make it more available to all, and that are prejudicial to those more physically capable than others. If that is the evolution of LARP, the vaulted future so often lauded, I’m afraid that LARP will not gain more players or become more open to a wider audience (an aim lauded by the article as a much-needed community goal). Instead it will become an even more rarified space, accessible to fewer based on the physical capability of the LARPers medium of play: their human body.
* Crogan, Patrick. “Blade Runners: Speculation on Narrative and Interactivity.” The South Atlantic Quarterly. 101.3 (2002): 639-57.
** Juul, Jesper “Games Telling Stories? A Brief Note on Games and Narratives.” Game Studies 1.1 (2001).