A Community of Gamers: Discourse analysis and LARP House Rules

The Doctor Weinberg's picture

If there is one thing that all LARP (Live Action Role Playing) games have in common, that thing is House Rules. Special tweaks or exceptions, changes to the published rules (whatever the system may be) that are created specifically for that game. These rules are often a source of consternation and aggravation, and often times are reworked as the philosophy of the game works.

Every game has its own philosophy, and those making the rules will focus their attention according to it. Maybe the goal is to make rules simple and easily learned. Maybe the philosophy is just to make the rules as fair and balanced as possible. Maybe it’s to encourage PvP (Player versus Player) conflict, or maybe it’s set up specifically to avoid such things. Whatever the philosophy of the game may be, knowing and understanding it leads to more effective house rules and a happier player base.

This makes the creation of house rules an important rhetorical act, one that involves a fair number of somewhat advanced techniques. There must be an effective audience analysis; forcing a philosophy onto a group of players is not a good way to keep them interested in the game. The philosophy can’t just belong to those running the game; it must be part of the game’s culture, and knowing that culture involves an analysis of the audience. Knowing what people want, what aspects they focus on, and what kind of rules they are interested in helps determine that basic philosophy.

Once that step is completed, discourse analysis becomes paramount. Sometimes, rules need to be reconciled across a number of sources, in order to keep the feel of the game (the genre) consistent across several inconsistent sources. This involves understanding the underlying message of the sources, and an analysis of the existing discourse on the subject. Being aware of the audience –the players- and their desires will help guide this analysis as the writers of the house rules decide what to keep and what to ignore in the existing writing on the subject, be that published materials for the system or previous sets of house rules.

Clarity is vital in house rules. Those making them must examine the rules as they exist and must look for potential loopholes and misunderstandings. Sometimes, the simple act of how a sentence is read can change the entire meaning. Does “Plus two traits and a free retest on all friendly social challenges” mean that the person gets two traits all the time and a free retest in that special circumstance? Or does it mean that the traits are only given in the special circumstance? When writing the house rules, this is something that must be clarified. The clearer the wording, the easier the rules will be to understand, and to enforce.

If one were to adapt a LARP setting for classroom use, making an Edu-LARP, house rules would be a must. The audience and philosophy of the game might be easily determined; the focus would be on learning, and the audience would be students, after all. But the intended lesson of the game might change quite a bit. Is the point of the Edu-LARP to teach students social interaction? Strategic thinking? Social psychology? Public speaking? Improvisational acting? Whatever the answer will change the philosophy of the game.

Further, an Edu-LARP has a discourse that a LARP set up just for entertainment won’t have. Namely, the goal of the class. If the idea is to teach ethics, that becomes part of the discourse, not just the published material of the games. While the Edu-LARP will (or should) still be fun for the players, there will be a far deeper discourse analysis involved, whether that be at the front end with the house rules or later in the class with discussion of the game session.

However an Edu-LARP is developed, house rules will play a significant role. And that means that game philosophy, audience analysis, and discourse analysis will also play a significant role. There are far more rhetorical acts in gaming than there might seem to be at first glance.

Comments

Sarah Lynne Bowman's picture

Joe, Thank you for sharing

Joe,

Thank you for sharing your ideas on house rules as they pertain to edu-larps! In RPG theory, we've taken to calling this discursive act you describe "establishing the play culture." The play culture involves what is and is not expected from players; what is proper behavior in terms of immersion vs. out-of-character behavior; which topics are open and which are sensitive; what the overall goals of the exercise are; how to treat one another; aspects such as workshopping and debriefing, which I find especially important for edu-larps. Knowing what the players want may be part of the process, but it also involves structuring games to meet multiple player types, goals, and styles of play. Ultimately, establishing the play culture, just like in any other social group, requires strong leadership and clear statements of expectations from both facilitators and students. 

You specifically mentioned published rule sets. Are you referring to leisure-based RPGs here? Or edu-larps? Can you provide some examples? A lot of the edu-larps I have studied, for example, do not feature mechanics for social interactions, but rather encourage the student to role-play such things out. 

Also, I think in any healthy RPG community and especially in a classroom setting, "rules lawyering" should be kept to a minimum. It's a fine line and difficult to determine at times, but facilitators should be clear in what is and is not acceptable in the game world and OOC interactions in terms of negotiation of plots, rules, and player agency. Excessive rules debates can derail a role-playing experience for everyone, which is doubly problematic in terms of edu-larp due to the need for strong leadership in the classroom.

I enjoyed reading your perspective! 

Sarah

Joe Weinberg's picture

Mechanics and rules

Sarah,

  I was referring to leisure based LARPs. Edu-larps are somewhat of a new phenomenon (for me, that is), and the vast amount of my experience comes from more formalizes leisure RPGs. Having started this sort of gaming in college, it has remained an important part of my life, and so naturally I found myself applying my studies towards it. I have often had ideas for running a larp in a classroom, but was unaware that such things were already so extant.

  I need to look more into RPG theory. RPGs have been a part of my life for about 25 years, and knowing that there is an academic community around it is gratifying.

  I absolutely agree with you about "rules lawyering." In any situation, be it educational or casual, such activities take away from both the immersive escapism of LARP and the value of such a situation. However, there is a time and place for such things. It seems, with leisure LARPs, there are often two separate but concurrent games: one that is actually about role play, and one that is about rules and mechanics. Both can be enjoyable, though often times people prefer one over the other. Rules Lawyering mid-game is bad, but arguing and debating rules outside of the game can be a very entertaining way to waste several dozen hours.

  But you are absolutely right: this sort of debate needs to be done outside of the game setting, and should certainly be done before the edu-larp actually begins.

Maury Elizabeth Brown's picture

"House rules" and other definitions

I enjoyed reading your perspective on House Rules in live action role-playing and how they might translate to the role of the teacher in edu-larps. I'm left wondering how you define house rules, and where they fit into the multi-layered rule systems of role-playing games: endogenous and exogenous, explicit and implicit, diegetic or non-diegetic.  I can think of what you might be calling "house rules" in two different ways:

  1. As the implicit rules that are not necessarily codified in the rules set, the ones that Sarah refers to as a "play culture" or what Markus Montola (2009) refers to as the "invisible rules" in level two of the system he outlines in his article, "The Invisible Rules of Role-Playing: The Social Framework of Role-Playing Process." These would be additions to, or tweaks of, codified rule systems in use in the community. They might be written somewhere, or they might just be understood by the players, and new members of the community would learn them through mentorship or by breaking them and being corrected.

  2. As the emergent rules that happen as a result of game play. These would be the rulings by Game Masters (GMs) made dynamically when an interpretation of a rule must be made or when two or more players have varying views regarding a rule and seek arbitration from the GM. Once a GM makes a ruling about the game's existing rule system, it becomes law and other rulings are based on it as precedent. Another group of players or play community may interpret the codified rule differently, thus resulting in different "house rules." These are rules at the level of diegesis, and affect character goals and play, even though they may have been settled at the level of the player using "rules lawyering" to advocate for an advantageous position for him/herself and his/her character.

Without this distinction of your definition of House Rules, I'm not sure how to consider the rest of your assertions.

In addition, I would like to question your distinction that edu-larps have goals beyond entertainment, while leisure-based larps do not. While edu-larps may be engaging with specific educational content, I would offer that all larps engage with specific content that must be mastered (and the more mastery, the more possibilities for play) and that all larps also have goals — both in-game/in-character and out-of-game/out-of-character. Indeed many larps are created with quite specific goals to engage in content that will provoke thoughts, emotions, and learning that can be carried beyond the game. I'm not sure I buy into "just a game" for leisure-based larps.

Lastly, you make this statement: "The clearer the wording, the easier the rules will be to understand, and to enforce." This is quite a positivistic view of language. While I am certainly an advocate of clear writing, I don't subscribe to the idea that a universally understood and enforceable rules-set can be written. I believe this based on more post-modern rhetorical principles as advocated by Hall, Biesecker, Foucault, Barthes, Bakhtin, and others, who state that meaning is made by negotiation between unique, diverse, historically and contextually situated audiences and the speaker/text, not transmitted or conveyed passively from the text to an imagined audience. I also believe one should not strive for a perfect and enforceably consistent rules-set because that is counter to the dynamism and co-creative properties of the role-playing game genre, which seeks to give agency to the players (students in an edu-larp) and less control to the game designer or manager. The rules-system and all the paratexts that codify a game are not the game itself. They are the beginning point for a unique instantiation of what becomes the game, an ephemeral act that is wholly dependent upon the dynamics of the particular players and the interpretations of that place, space and time. No two games are the same, nor indeed, should they be.

In education, "House Rules" (depending on your definition) could refer to classroom culture or teacher philosophy, as no two sections of the same course would be the same, even if they both operated from the same textbook, standards, learning outcomes, or scope and sequence (this is why the educational accountability reforms are so flawed, but that is another discussion). No two games or game communities will be the same, even with the same rules-system, mechanics, materials, etc. This difference, however, is part of the art of teaching, the magic of education, and the appeal of larping. Certainly House Rules (and explicit rules-systems and the enactment of the game itself) are rhetorical acts, as is teaching. There is much to theorize here. But to do so, I believe we need to agree on some basic definitions that will allow us to clarify the conversation.

Joe Weinberg's picture

House rules, recreation, and additional benefits

Maury,

  I really appreciate your thoughtful response. I hope I am able to answer your concerns in a way that you find satisfactory.

First off, the 'Play culture' idea you referred to from Montola is actually one of the problems that I think House Rules are meant to solve. These kinds of rules, the unspoken tweaks and interpretations of rules become part of the word-of-mouth rules. A codified house rules should, in an ideal world, put these sorts of things into a single place, so that an outsider (a visiting player, a new player, etc.) isn't at a disadvantage simply for not having an established place within the culture of the game.

Similarly, your second definition presents difficulties, in particular with the idea of 'precedent.' A GM may need to make rules calls dynamically, as you said, but if those calls are not then recorded, we run back into those 'invisible rules.'

When I talk about house rules, I am speaking of something that would come to solve both of the issues that you bring up. Something that will be codified as an addendum or revision of the codified rules. There will still be 'invisible rules,' and there will still be 'dynamic rulings,' but when these things are identified, they should be added to the house rules as soon as possible. To my interpretation, house rules are meant to make sure that everyone is on an even playing field in terms of how the world they are taking part in works.

I have particular issues with precedence, and you have hit the reasoning very clearly. You wrote "they may have been settled at the level of the player using "rules lawyering" to advocate for an advantageous position for him/herself and his/her character."  That is exactly the problem; when the two players come to get arbitration from the GM, there is a chance (even likelihood) that the on-the-spot decision will not be entirely fair. If precedent is a common practice, then these unfair rules will continue to compound one another. But that is an issue for another discussion.

Now, as for the distinction of recreational larps v edularps and goals beyond entertainment. I have to be clear that while I believe the goals of recreational larps are focused around entertainment, they are not the only achievements possible. Within the game there are always a set of goals (become the prince, defeat the wyrm, win the battle, etc.) that exist within the game world. But a player may come to the game with the intent of getting more than simple entertainment out of the game. A player may come with the intent (conscious or not) of learning public speaking, or conflict resolution. Or maybe the goal is simply to engage in a social community. In my own experiences with larps, there are always social circles that develop and easy friendships for those who share this interest. A player may come with the goal of understanding how politics works, or for training for the rock-paper-scissors championship, or even to gain a better ability to think on one's feet.

But those other goals, while important, are not the focused goals of the game itself. But I think you make an important point: saying that the goal of recreational larps is just entertainment is unfair. Better, perhaps, to consider it the primary goal.

The edularp's primary goal is education. Entertainment is a part of the technique, and any number of other sub goals may be achieved, but I think each type is defined by their primary (but not exclusive) goals.

 

I understand the umbrage you take to my view of language and clarity. I am not suggesting that clear wording will solve all problems. I am suggesting that the clearer the wording, the easier it will be to ensure that everyone involved in the game has the same understanding. They are more likely to be able to identify (in the sense of Kenneth Burke) with one another. Certainly, language has a multivalence of meanings, as Derrida, Wittgenstein, and (to an extent) Merleau-Ponty suggest. And certainly, there are moments of learning the rules and tactics of the game (in the sense of deCerteau). But my point in this context is that it will be easier for those involved in that particular game to agree to be bound to a set of rules when those rules are written as clearly as possible.

As you point out, the negotiation of meaning between different audiences does pose a problem for a generally positivistic view of language. And one set of house rules, if given to an entirely different game with a separate gaming culture, may have different meanings. But the situation I am presenting is one where the audience is well known and well represented. The negotiation of audience has already been completed before the house rules are written; this is part of the first step, developing the culture of the game. One the rules are being codified, the unique situationality of the audience has already been handled.

That said, I'm not sure it's possible to ever design 'perfect' rules. As the game grows and changes, gaining new players, losing old players, etc., the audience of the game moves away from the audience that the rules were originally written for. In this case, revision is called for, and a renegotiation to ensure, as you suggest, that the players still have agency. I agree; no two games are (or should be) the same. And I would take it further to agree that the same game over time is not the same game, nor should it be considered as such. Heriklitus was not talking about gaming when he told us we can't step in the same river twice. But it's a valid point nonetheless.

I hope this helps clarify things for you.

Once again, thank you for your great comment.