Rules To Live By: Supernatural


Some books have witty titles, and some have generic titles. Some have titles that live forever, entering into our collective culture, and some have bad titles that die ingloriously. Rules To Live By: Supernatural is the first supplement published for the Rules To Live By generic LARPing system.

Some books have witty titles, and some have generic titles. Some have titles that live forever, entering into our collective culture, and some have bad titles that die ingloriously. The book I look at this time has a title as descriptive as they come. Rules To Live By: Supernatural is the first supplement published for the Rules To Live By generic LARPing system (a review of the core book, published by Interactivities Ink is also available - Editor), If it is strange, this book deals with it.

Its topic is of the utmost importance, simply because the strange is the pivot of so many LARPs. Whole hecatombs of LARPs are based on the premise of taking the absolutely mundane, and adding a level of screwball weirdness to it. What if Andrew Jackson had psychic powers, what if Cthulu came to the Tupperware party; worse LARP concepts have been written and preformed to considerable success. Sure, it is a cheap way of making a storyline interesting, but it is a tried and true one. You can't knock it. It works.

In specific, RTLB: S covers magic, psionics, weird science, and alchemy, alongside with the sanity rules for the playing of horror games. All the potential funkiness of any world wrapped up in a slim text and put out for display. I was disappointed with RTLB: S, but in much of the same way I was disappointed with the original RTLB book. It achieved what it set out to do and I cannot fault it for doing so, but does so in a lackluster manner.

My first impression of RTLB: S was unfavorable. Looking in all I saw was more lists, and expected that this book was only an expansion on all the things I saw as wrong in the first book. There is less art, but it has not improved in quality. Over time I discovered that my original impressions were, thankfully, wrong, but I still have big problems with the book.

The most important sections of the book are the listings of magical powers, magical items and psionic talents. Psionics operate like skills, along with adding a separate Psionics attribute for games that involve them. In a design sense this works well. Not only are the basic rules the same; it becomes awfully easy to integrate the system for character creation. After all, if it only boils down to more skills and attributes, just give players more points to play with.

Psionic powers can stand to ruin a LARP faster than Goth night at your local industrial club. LARPs revolve around secrets, hidden motivations, and trying to trick people into revealing information or setting up alliances with them. Once we get into the realm of telepathy and Jedi mind tricks all that goes out the window pretty fast. RTLB deals with the problem in a typical fashion, mostly by limiting the number of times per session.

However, they also deal with the problem in a way that does not satisfy me, which is backlash. Quite simply, all the high LARP value psionic skills cause damage to the user each time they are attempted, successful or not. Furthermore, the damage they do counts as the most serious kind, and is also resilient to anything but supernatural healing. To wit:

"The voices, voices in my head, screaming GAME BALANCE!"

Magic works in much the same way. Add a Mana attribute and use things like skills. The major complication is that there is a mana point system at work. Each spell takes a different number of points to run, and the number of points is determined by each players mana attribute.

That some people like a point based magic system and others don't is banal in the extreme, but speaking as someone who generally does not like them, I was impressed by this one. You can chalk this up to the acuity of the designers and the extensive time spent playtesting the system. Since there are such low number levels dealt with, a constant goal in game is maximizing what mana you have, a more natural way of restricting power play.

Also, RTLB: S also avoids the trap of forcing players into a hyper-conservatory approach to their magic use, mostly by extensive rules on rituals. Magic will get you by, but to do anything plot important it takes many people working together: quite a crafty means of getting a LARP flowing. The game finds magic use at a nice balance between macro and micro applications, in ways that could only fit in a well-wrought point based system. Sure, spend up those points in battle, you will not be able to bring anything to table when someone is looking for friends to put together that dragon summoning.

Speaking of dragons there is an expanded bestiary, which includes all manner of supernatural creatures. In fact, there is even a revised normal bestiary. While I detested it in the first book, I am accepting of it in this book. Why the change of heart? The authors have revised it so as to take up less space in a more easily understood format. It makes sense to have such sections in a game about the supernatural. When familiars, shapechangers and summoning become an issue, not to mention likely characters for the players to play, it is necessary to have some statistics for them.

Otherwise magic can also come into play through items. The authors of RTLB: S have gone to great lengths to make it so that the magical item creation system is, following theme here, perfectly integrated with the rest of the game. No magic item has just a power, but always ties into existing powers. Each magic item is built from the ground up, so that each and every magical item follows the same rules. There are no chances for ambiguity of powers, but much flexibility since the powers are often highly open ended.

Is it so bad that the magical items are so understandable, created almost like characters? The system should foster individuality in creation. But the other reason the game is designed that way is to make it so nothing cannot be done by the characters. Magic item production is just one more series of spells and rituals with a few perks to them. The benefits are clear. The system, owing to its transparence, encourages tweaking. The weaknesses? Well, it is good to aspire to a state of perfect compatibility, but the system is awkward. After all, the rules cannot allow the easy production of magical items, as they would destroy the game as surely as the nasty psychic powers would. So they are achievable, but only barely so, and only creatable with a specially designed character who has several people backing her over many sessions of play. Having such stiff rules makes them feel a bit pointless, as if the designers were only taunting the players with the possibilities. Still, for the other reasons already cited, the system works.

The rest of the book is, as they say, fluff. It is tragic that designers who write so well about the ways and means of LARPing get caught up in other things. The sanity rules are more of necessary evil, part and parcel of doing horror role playing games. I have difficulty swallowing weird science, simply because the authors are intentionally vague as to what weird science is. And what is Weird Science? I don't know! The worst of the Post-Modernist pseudo-science is more intelligible. I would quote a passage, but the section would need to be quoted at length to display the full confusion that ensues from such an idea.

In game effects, weird science is just an excuse to have gadget rules. Why were gadget rules so important? To switch topics, why were alchemy rules so important either? There are alchemy rules to detail the creation of various potions. Both have a conceptual similarity: some general knowledge of the subject (in one case, esoteria, in the other, engineering) affixed to rules for the sake of standardization.

In neither case does it work because it is altogether too specific. General rules work well for grandiose concepts, like, for instance, magic. The constraints of each individual LARP require a Referee to structure such subsets differently each time. Admittedly the rules are presented in an optional fashion, but, and especially for gadgeteering, the chances are high for a LARP to be built around those rules.

The voodoo section brought this idea home for me. After some discussion of how magic has to be different in different sorts of games, the authors apply their ideas to voodoo. There is a fairly long and in-depth discussion of voodoo and what it means, and then little to no discussion of how to integrate the ideas with the RTLB magic system. It is the same problem that the weird science and alchemy sections had. The authors do not have a good feel for the division between what is generic and what is specific.

Making a generic system is a difficult endeavor. It takes the ultimate splitting of worlds, developing ideas that are general enough to have mass use, but specific enough to have practical use. Unfortunately, the authors of RTLB have yet to master the division, and in this book, it shows. So if you are running an RTLB game and want to include the paranormal, look at this book. It may be that the presented style is the one you are aiming for. It just as likely will not be. If it is they you have one well-tuned engine at your disposal, but otherwise you are on your own.

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