A Community of Gamers: Discourse analysis and LARP House Rules
by Joe Weinberg — University of Minnesota Crookston
February 03, 2015 – 19:00
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.