The history of LARPing goes back to when we were all kids in our backyards. The act of make-believe is beautiful because anything goes – you make up the rules on the fly, create imaginary and limitless worlds in which you and your friends make stories about pirates or knights or whatever suited your fancy that day. But even when you were a kid, there was always that one child who would insist that the made-up rules were wrong, that the pirate king you put in prison was in the jungle gym, not underneath the slide. Suddenly a fun game becomes an argument about whose made-up rules were right and the pirate king escapes for another day.
The only difference between child’s play and LARPing is that we decided to write the rules of our make-believe down – and that’s good. Rules are important. They create a framework of boundaries so we can explore the same known space, otherwise the sand in our sandbox plot would just go everywhere. The problem most LARPs have is when their game expands beyond a playground and moves to a broader audience, some of which might not have never experienced the why’s and how’s of why certain rules are the way they are. At that point, we get into the potentially dangerous area of theorycrafting game design.
The Dangers of Theorycrafting
Theorycrafting is a community coined term that describes using or gaming a rules system to achieve the absolute maximum potential. It’s something that’s pretty common in video games, particularly in MMOs when there are a million different variables between gear, playstyles, and add-ons that you can use to create different, and better, results. Every time I pick up a new class in an MMO, I instantly start searching the internet: what’s the best stat for me to stack? What should my ability rotation be? How do I need to gear myself? You’ll find hundreds of websites and guides that have crunched the best and worst of everything and use the game mechanics and bugs to push themselves to be the best at a game.
The problem is that video games and LARPing aren’t entirely alike. There’s more than getting the highest DPS or the best gear in a LARP. The goal for LARPing often isn’t as clear-cut – it’s about collaboration and community. While you might be playing an MMO to beat down a bad guy together, determine your best party make-up, and mash buttons until you win, LARPing isn’t that simple. Yes, you might be playing together, but the reasons why can be drastically different and it’s not always about accomplishing the same set of goals. You can’t ‘beat’ or ‘win’ at LARPing – it’s a place for you to tell stories.
To that end, the rules are there to help you tell those stories, just like the little make-believe moments from the playground when you were a kid. The minute you take that away and make it about the system and how to push beyond its limits instead of the story, you begin to lose touch on what LARPing is about – both as a player and a game designer. It can be very easy to lose sight of collaborative story-telling when your players are trying to break the system to their benefit and a game designer has to focus all their time closing off loop-holes instead of focusing on the roleplay that LARP is all about. It’s what very often becomes the first death toll of a game.
When Theorycrafting Works
Theorycrafting does have its values, but it needs to come in moderation. When entering a discussion about interpretation of a rule, there’s a pretty common phrase that gets tossed around: the spirit of a rule vs the letter of a rule. Unless a game designer wants to focus all of his or her time writing down every possible wrong and right interpretation, it requires a level of trust from the players to acknowledge what the intent of a rule is and realize that the rules are there as a groundwork to create story, not as a way to make video gaming real. To steal something recently used on the Alliance LARP forums: if you're smart enough to find a loophole, you're smart enough to know not to use it. Understand that the goal is to playing make-believe together and sometimes it’s better acknowledge the differences between an MMO and a LARP and decide which you really want to play.
Sometimes there are absolutely dangerous or unnoticed loopholes in a rules system that a game designer needs to address. When that comes up, don’t make it a discussion; most games have avenues for feedback to be left or clarifications to be made that allow a game designer to make adjustments as necessary to a system. And ultimately, when a game designer wants feedback on a rule, they will ask for it. Sometimes it requires seeing that rule and its interpretations in play before any adjustment can be made – creating a LARP on paper and seeing it on practice are two different animals.
And it’s true that some people just enjoy theorycrafting about everything – that’s okay, too. Just recognize that when you’re collaborating in a community, the act of theorycrafting in public may effect the enjoyment of people around you since they might not have the same goals and reasons to play as you do. Like interacting in any other community, understanding when and how to present your thoughts can make a huge difference on whether it’s going to cause a fight in the playground or if you can acknowledge that maybe neither of you might not agree where the pirate king is, but you sure as hell both put him in jail.