Rules and narrativism

Over the years I’ve seen a few tabletop roleplayers comment that larp rules need to learn from indie games like Apocalypse World, which use the rules to drive the fiction rather than as a traditional “physics engine”. The big problem with this is that larp isn’t tabletop, and so tabletop-style negotiation of story outcomes doesn’t work well with the immersive immediacy of larp. But there’s an interesting article on Nordic larp on this topic which has a few good thoughts on this:

There’s some good snark in there about how Nordic larps started calling rules “meta-techniques” to avoid the association with games (equals Gamism equals Bad). And they spend a lot of space talking about indies games in case (or on the assumption that) readers are unfamilar with them. But there’s also some concrete design advice rather than the usual vague hype: namely, decide what sorts of thematic things you want to happen in your game, and construct the rules to make it happen. They have a concrete example of a larp focusing around interrogation, with mechanics to produce a sense of tension as secrets are exposed (or not exposed), and that seems eminently stealable. And now I’m wondering if there’s a similar mechanic to emulate Regency (or Wodehousian) romance…


This sort of idea is one I see a lot in online ttrpg spaces, mainly D&D, especially D&D 5e because it’s such a gateway. While yes, it’s possible to have roleplaying experience with any rules, or no rules, it’s much easier if you have rules that align with the kind of game you want. It’ll give players direction and support to then move within and slightly off the framework.

One good recent example is the Doctor / Engineer / Chemist / Academic 3 mechanics in consequence, were sure, you’ve got some solid gameplay mechanics, but then you unlock “and you can make something new”. Which while not explicitly prevented in many rulesets, it isn’t usually presented as an explicit option.

One of my first larps was Volcano’s Edge, and it was great, but after reading the character sheet and the player materials, I realised, there wasn’t any real ‘rules’, and so I spent a lot of that game trying to figure out how to ‘do things’.

So while narrative RPGs are often great at moving away from simulationist rulesets, they can sometimes move too far too fast and leave people unsure as to how to get their goals done, within the game.

This is especially true for LARP, where often there’s very little direction or structure given and it’s assumed players understand that talking to everyone and learning who knows what, using what rules there are (if any) and talking to the GMs for anything else is how anything is actually done.

Of course, all of this leads up to ‘and how to we write good rules for specific outcomes.’


Well that’s a failure of briefing on my part. I should add an explicit note about that to my future pre-game briefings and player sheets. For theatreforms, talking is basicly the “physics engine”, and a lot don’t even bother to have combat rules now (out of an explicit recognition that the game Isn’t About That).

To write good rules for specific outcomes, you need to have some idea what outcomes you want. A lot of games don’t. My thoughts for Stolen Crown don’t really go further than “people will talk and argue with each other and eventually a decision will be made”. And for theatreforms, a lot of the thematic interaction is driven by what you preload onto the characters (example: in Persephone’s Choice, I want people to talk about the Three Laws of Robotics. So practically everyone has something about them that they want to know. No mechanics necessary). So narrativist rules are something you cruft onto such a game.

For campaigns, I think a good example is the way healing rules are no structured to produce medical drama, making the process interesting for both medics and their patients.


I think any Wodehouse game doing that would definitely need a mechanic for how to become accidentally engaged to someone…


Precisely. I think “Midsummer Mischief” does it with random words, for example. But I don’t know if some characters are primed by knowing e.g. that Gussie is interested in newts, or if they’re just things likely to turn up (like the weather, or aunts).