Rules To Live By


To remind you that not all LARP is either White Wolf World or people hitting each other with plumbing, here comes Rules to Live By (RTLB). RTLB, by Interactivities Ink, is the first in a line of LARP products, and this review will be considering the main book. In brief, RTLB is a success at what it sets out to do, and then it falters. Its core is as rock solid as they come, but RTLB is hampered by much misspent energy.

To remind you that not all LARP is either White Wolf World or people hitting each other with plumbing, here comes Rules to Live By (RTLB). RTLB, by Interactivities Ink, is the first in a line of LARP products, and this review will be considering the main book. In brief, RTLB is a success at what it sets out to do, and then it falters. Its core is as rock solid as they come, but RTLB is hampered by much misspent energy.

Rules to Live By (think about it: it's actually something of a pun) is an attempt to create a generic system for LARPing. This is a drastically important thing. LARPs did not develop like table-top games. LARPs have developed piece-meal over the years, converging from different sources and ideals. D&D brought the idea of role playing games to people, so it served as a sort of common language for some time. Even today WoTC tries to bank on this notion with D20. D&D worked well as a lingua franca because it was fantasy and flexible. It was extremely basic in its conceptions, which is not a bad route to take when developing a new style of game altogether.

LARPs have never had this luxury. The closest thing to a commonly known system that LARPs have had is Mind's Eye Theater, which is so-so as LARPing systems go. As an aside, MET works perfect in a game of relatively equal powered characters and players who are serious about role play and not power gaming. But aside from the system, the use of MET also makes a political choice that some people cannot tolerate. Thus, a generic, or at least more generic, LARP system is a necessary thing. RTLB is an attempt to create a wholly generic system. Its goal is to have game mechanics that are applicable to any style of simulated combat play.

You will be drawn to this book by the cover art. It is quality stuff, especially out of a small company, and appropriate. It is fun, and refreshing at that. Inside, they made the good choice of avoiding using photos. Most other LARP books have interior art that is all photos, generally photos of LARPs going on, or at least ones that make it look like LARPs going on. Unfortunately, most LARPers are not models, most props that are wonderful in game look downright shabby under photography's clinical eye and rarely do they look like an actual LARP because there is too much posing going on. (I do believe, irony of ironies, that all the photos in Laws of the Night, 2nd edition violate some cardinal rule of the game. Make of that what you will).

They made a slightly less wise choice not paying for art. Oh there is art to be found, but I would not trust these artists to draw Binkey. There are diamonds, but they are in an awful lot of rough. The art shows the reason why all other LARP books have photos in them. After all, what do you want to show to represent a LARP but an actual LARP? Do you show spacecraft fighting in the astral waltz? No, because LARPers are not going to see that, at least not in the same way that table-top gamers will. LARPs operate heavily upon a theatrical suspension of disbelief. It is not that a stack of boxes really looks like a castle wall, but the effort shows, and overall effect of a slight prop within a space where everyone is pretending to be someone else, works. RTLB just has pictures of unusual things. Few inspire, and most just exist for the sake of filler.

Although, winning the prize for best conceit is a picture to be found in the skill list. The skill list is alphabetical, so Artisan and Autopsy are on the same page. And, yep, you guessed it; here we have a crude illustration of a hippie painting an autopsy in progress. Needless to say I don't intend on including such a patchouli'd DaVinci in any game soon.

But we're here to play a LARP, not gawk at pictures, right? The mechanics are RTLB's strength. It uses dice, something heretical to much of the LARPing world, but tries to use them in a nicely innocuous way. Now, if you are a die-hard (NPI) LARPer this is something of a chocolate/vanilla thing. It either seems a good idea or a heretical one, and there is no persuading the other side. The trick is that all mechanics, regardless of what they use, are intrusive. Dice, coins, hand games, legalistic arguments, cards or yarrow sticks, they all intervene in the flow of the LARPing. Yes, this means you must carry around dice. There are some electronic dice out there that are so perfect for the job it is as if they were not just designed for LARPing but RTLB in specific. However, until Interactivities Ink starts producing and marketing these dice on their own, chances are you will not find them.

In the context of RTLB, dice work. RTLB's system is the singular most eloquent dice mechanic in the world: stat+skill+roll. It is not new, but it is one that always works well for direct challenges, the meat and potatoes of LARPing. All the numbers involved are small, because the roll is of a single D6. A single die like this is a necessity, simply because addition must be done on the fly. But when everything is on such a small scale, differences matter a lot. Every modifier is a big one.

Of course, the place where such modifiers will matter the most is in combat. There is no drastic change in rule set between regular action and combat. Nothing in the system is especially complicated to understand, and it could run smoothly on its own without a Referee present, always an illustrious goal. RTLB does one startlingly smart move about combat: everyone has to be involved from the get-go. In most LARPs, combat is something that starts with the direct participants. However, combat draws people like moths to a flame, so most fights, in a round or two, turn into mob scenes (sufficing there is a mob to scene). RTLB, on the other hand, puts everyone in the immediate vicinity into combat, allowing him or her to then run or get involved as it may be. On the other hand, such a rule may encourage people to fight. After all, they are already in combat. Besides, due to the order of combat system (all actions are simultaneous), the initiator of combat (getting a free move) is an attractive position.

The optional and harsh rules on surgery are the counter, making healing a slightly trickier proposition for the sake of discouraging fighting, and the damage system is harsh enough to do so as well. Actually, the damage system is rather creative, in that players are forced to wear their damage proudly. Damage is assessed in levels of stars, which must be shown on the character's badge. It is good, simply because damage does show, but is silly for the same reasons because damage shows exactly. But each level of damage subtracts from all of the rolls that a player makes. Again, in dealing with such small numbers, a single good hit will leave a character operating solely on luck, and two will put a character out of the combat running, if not kill.

The basic mechanics remain a simple and good system. Yes, they will fit a style of game with a moderate amount of combat the best, but one cannot avoid style in rules. The skill list was when I felt the book start to fail me. Part of it is a problem faced by any generic rule system. Generic covers a lot of ground. The skill list must cover every possible realm of human interaction, anything someone has, can, or could do. RTLB forwards a considerable amount of space to giving it the ol' college try. The effect is not very positive. The quotes are dull, and the attempt to put it all in does not work. The systematic and graphic presentations of how all of the skills challenge is a good idea, if only because they copy well onto a character sheet.

The attempt to put in as many skills as possible hurts RTLB because they could have used that space for other things. It is a small book so there is no room for GURPS-esq listings of skills. Every game is going to be so drastically different so that the authors should have just stuck with guidelines as to how to create and maintain skills. The following section, the equipment list, is, ironically, as sparse as the skill list is long. I suppose getting all stuff from all time was a bridge too far.

I am always fascinated by what sticks out at me from various books. It is strange how one passage or section will prove themselves especially memorable, for good or ill. In RTLB, that section is the pharmacopoeia section, perhaps due to the fact that a pharmaceutical advisor is cited in the credits. (On the other hand, my production company has a staff geologist, so I've not much room to talk). It had the appearance of filler to me, of something just put in for the sake of room. And yes, Prozac and antihistamines do damage. Just a little and quickly recoverable, but, again, when the numbers are so small, it can be a huge difference.

I felt a sudden "why am I reading this?" The same thing happened in the bestiary. I think wild boars should be used in LARPs sparingly, so much so that rules for them are a waste of time. The list of languages goes on for three pages, and is arbitrary in assessing of what constitutes a common or ancient language. And finally, the provided adventure is so amazingly trite and clichÈ that I would be embarrassed to run it.

The wasted space was even bitterer because the advice sections, on things like how to actually run a LARP, were wonderful. The authors know what they are doing, and it shows. The devil is in the details in running a LARP, and this book tells it all up front, making it clear just how to take care of those details. If Interactivities Ink puts out a Referee's guide, it will be a powerful piece of work. In this book, unfortunately, they have let themselves become bogged down in the stupid details.

Who is this book for? I do not expect experienced LARPers to flock to it, unless they have been using a wretched system. The dice issue will haunt RTLB, as those who are set in their ways against dice will never touch it. It is a splendid transitional LARP. Its system is solid, its insights good and the price is dead on. It is only a framework, but a solid framework to build around, easier and more consistent than doing your own rule design, especially if you want people to make their own characters.

So if you are a Referee with some good ideas for a LARP, (especially if it involves a bunch of animals taking over the corner pharmacy and only the professors at the local university can save the world), and are ready to make the big switchover from the table, this is the book for you.

Editors Note: The author has worked for Interactivities Ink in the past.

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