Don’t Touch or I’ll Sue: American larp as national metaphor

This is the talk I gave at Solmukohta 2012, Gen Con 2012, and Wyrd Con 2012 on American larp as emblematic of US national values. It is based on my essay in States of Play(pdf), the 2012 Knutebook, as well as on some older blog posts about tall tales and US larp, and physical contact and litigiousness in US larp. It’s a little rough — talking points to jog my memory during the speeches, but I think the bulk of the substance is there.


This talk was inspired by my 2011 visit to Knudepunkt, an art larp convention that rotates its way around the Nordic capitals. As I watched, tried, and learned about their way of larping, it struck me as really Nordic, in the stereotypical sense of the word – communal in important ways.

That got me thinking that if Nordic larp is Nordic, maybe American larp is American.

I had the idea that Nordic folk took roleplaying – which originated in America – and evolved it to fit their local culture. Perhaps the reason that American larp hasn’t changed greatly since its inception is because it already had that quintessential American-ness about it.

So I went looking for American-ness – surely a slippery quality — in one of the games that I followed extensively for Leaving Mundania.

I looked at Americanness in larp in two ways.

  •  The effect that American values have on larp
  •  The American values that arise out of larp

*Disclaimer: The US is a huge and diverse country, with many different larp scenes – I can’t presume to speak for all of them, and I don’t presume to think that the idea of Americanness that I’m using is the only sort of Americanness. I did the bulk of my research on the Eastern seaboard between DC and Boston.


Knight Realms

Knight Realms – I didn’t want to focus on generalities, so I decided to examine a specific larp, Knight Realms, which is a boffer campaign typical of US boffer campaigns.

  • Based in New Jersey
  • Has been running since 1997, meeting about once per month
  • Events typically last a weekend, and take place at a Boy Scout or Girl Scout campground in the tri-state area.
  • It’s well attended – 150-200 people regularly show up for events.
  • The setting is medieval fantasy, and it uses boffers – padded weapons – for combat.
  • Most plots revolve around NPCs, non-player-characters, who attack or offer puzzles. Player versus player action is permitted but not encouraged.
  • It’s got a ton of rules – more than 166 web pages worth.

US Culture’s Influence on Knight Realms

How American Culture affects Knight Realms on a structural level:

  • Litigiousness. Lawsuits, and legal liability, real or threatened, are a facet of life in the US. (explain attractive nuisance tort). And they create incentives to run larp as a business.
    • Litigiousness creates a high financial bar
      • KR takes out liability insurance, which costs money.
  • Litigiousness means that someone must be legally liable for stuff that might go wrong:
    • So it makes sense to incorporate larp, so that the corporation and not the person is liable.
  • So our cultural litigiousness makes running larp expensive, and encourages organizers to incorporate themselves. In short, cultural litigiousness creates an incentive for organizers to run their games as businesses.

 Litigiousness affects the stories told in game:

  • implied no-touching rule, which means that some themes, like say, love, aren’t typically played. This is true at KR. If players want to play romance among each other, they can, but it’s not something that’s part of the game plot.

Running larp as a business affects the game dynamics at KR via the following:

  • Death systems
    • Players sink time and money into their characters in the form of admission fees, event attendance, and costumes. From a business point of view, if a character permanently dies, that represents a player’s lost investment in the game. So at Knight Realms there’s a forgiving death system – everyone is allowed five deaths.
  • Inheritance from one character to another.
    • If you retire a character (or the character dies the last death), the investment isn’t toally lost – you can role over a percentage of skillpoints to your new character. This means that new characters aren’t always low level – keeps the social structure rigid
  • No end of the world plots
    • They’re a staple of high-fantasy literature, but in order for the game to be interesting, the players must have the chance to succeed or fail at any given plot. If the players fail at a world-ending plot, the game has effectively written itself out of existence, and that’s not in the business model.

 An anti-realist tradition in larp:

We’ve got an anti-realist tradition. If you want realism – go find some reenactors, because in general, you won’t find clearly consistent worlds with hard historical underpinnings in larp.

  • The Setting: Disneyland style; atmosphere as pastiche.
    • Knight Realms, while set in the 1200s, isn’t historically accurate in setting. It’s really a pastiche of medieval fantasy movies, myth, and history, and because of that, you’ll see many different sorts of dress among the characters. The owner, James C. Kimball, spends a lot of effort trying to make things look medieval, trying to evoke the medieval era without necessarily replicating the medieval era.
    • I’ve got a theory about this phenomenon: Maybe this is because we don’t live alongside our  history the way, for example, that Europe does. Therefore, larps set in older time periods necessarily require suspension of disbelief.
    • This is echoed by the game reality. because things have to go back to normal between games, there’s not much institutional memory within campaign larps.
  • Tendency to play hyperbolic characters – mighty heroes, not ordinary people…even though we’re a democratic country that deifies folksiness (eg Joe the Plumber) The dream is to be an exceptional person who will achieve extraordinary goals – someone who can get ahead.
    • This hyperbole is written into the KR rules put it, “Every PC in this game is a ‘hero’ in the Knight Realms world. They are above and beyond the normal man.”
    • The irony at Knight Realms, of course, is that everyone is exceptional by definition – we’re all heroes above mortal man; it’s a new form of equality, and one that by design can’t satisfy the desire to be the center of attention.
    • I see it as fitting in with the only national myths we have; the tall tales from the frontier, which tell of exceptional people doing exceptional things – Pecos Bill riding a giant cat fish down the Rio Grande – Paul Bunyon clearing redwood forests with a sweep of his hand, and so on.
    • Liberal-minded anxiety also affects how we play Racism and classism – we come from a country where “anyone can grow up to be president,” as the rhetoric goes, a country that prides itself on offering equality and freedom and upward mobility. So racism and classism make us profoundly uncomfortable
  • Racism
    • The US has a fraught relationship with race and racial dress up. Playing race produces liberal minded anxiety.
    • It’s more common to see larps with green people and blue people than with black, white, and Hispanic people. This is certainly true at KR.
    • When racism is played at KR – and it’s written into some racial descriptions – it typically isn’t played, except among friends. Or when it is played, we get a Mary Sue type plot to the effect of “it’s not right to make the Khitanians live on one side of town.” In other words, KR plays racial stuff that we settled in the 1960s – most games don’t touch current issues of racism because they are seen as too explosive, or because they’re too complex.
  • Class culture.
    • In the US, we like to think that class isn’t a thing. The idea of upward mobility, regardless of class, is linked into how we construct our national identity. Even when we’re pretending to live in medieval times, it’s hard to overcome the idea that we’re all equal.
    • Travance, the barony where Knight Realms takes place, is ruled by nobility. Real medieval nobility inherited their titles, but at Knight Realms, it’s a meritocracy – nobility gain titles through acts of bravery and by proving, out of game, that they are responsible enough to handle a role important to the plot.

How Knight Realms Reflects US Cultural Values

So that’s the background for the rest of the talk. I wanted to talk a bit in general about some cultural forces that shape larp in the US, and how those elements effect KR directly. Now, I’m going to talk more in depth about how the elaborate rules systems of Knight Realms, and games like it, reflect American values.

We love us some rags to riches stories in America. We love stories about people who start out at the bottom of the social order and head to the top in one generation. And we pride ourselves of being a nation in which upward mobility is possible, where hard work and the protestant work ethic pay off, because everyone starts on an equal playing field. That’s the rhetoric, at least.

Excessive rules help create a similar atmosphere in game.

 Why do we have rules?

  • Emma Wieslander says organizers introduce rules whenever they want player and character to experience something differently. E.g. death. (see Beyond Role and Play)
  • That may be a fine description for rules-light Nordic games. But it doesn’t explain why Knight Realms has rules for stuff like reading, which isn’t physically impossible or unsafe to other participants.
  • I think that the excessive amount of rules at games like Knight Realms create equality.Take the literacy skill at KR. In real life, my literacy skills are pretty awesome – I’ve got some graduate degrees. And a book! But in game, I’m no different from a 14-year-old high schooler playing a warrior until my character uses a point to obtain literacy. In effect, the literacy mechanic deprives me of my educational advantage. It means that the 14-year-old and I start the game on equal footing. I’d connect this to an American vision of equality

The American Vision of Equality

  • We think if “equality” as equality of opportunity, not equality of access or outcome.
    • The 14th Amendment of our Constitution says, for example, that the law must treat people equally. The law’s equal treatment of citizens, this supposed lack of structural boundaries to success is supposed to give every citizen the much-vaunted equal playing field. If we’re all beginning at the same starting point, then we succeed or fail by virtue of how much effort we put in.
    • So Knight Realms’ rules ostensibly evoke equality of opportunity – the large amount of rules create an equal playing field, they try to promote the meritocracy of the game, which is something players are very concerned about.

So the rules create an equal playing field. But elaborate numeric systems also imply leveling up.

  • The rules also imply leveling up – if I have +5 strength, I want to know when I’ll get +6 strength.
  •  At KR, they keep track of levels in the form of build(explain how build works, that it’s the raw stuff of character creation that you can spend by investing in stats, skills, or professions. For every 10 build you invest, you gain one level)
  •  You can get extra build through:
    • paying more
    • doing service for the game
    • excellent roleplay.
  • However, because KR doles out build for event attendances, characters will inexorably gain power and influence whether they take advantage of the extras or not.

In other words, KR characters follow the path of the ideal American immigrant.

The Rags To Riches Myth

The Emma Lazerus poem on the statue of liberty says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The implication is that we’ll take them in, and through the magic of capitalism and democracy, (and if they’re good immigrants who follow the rules) make them rich and awesome over the course of one or more generations. That’s the American dream – to work hard and get ahead.

Tied into this is our rags to riches myth – we love to hear about people who go from immigrant to famous in one generation. Eg Obama, Sotamayor, Jay-Z.

So games like KR mirror the path of the ideal immigrant. When we enter a new game, we leave behind our everyday worries, our community relationships, and our very conception of self—in favor of taking on a new identity and new position within the game world. If the rules strip players of their natural abilities, then new characters—the huddling masses immigrating to a new, fantastical world—enter the game virtually naked, without many health points, skills, or protections. Over time, players who follow the rules – making real-life investments of time (event attendance), money (costuming and admission fees), and talent gain influence in game, their road to power conveniently quantified by level.

Achieving the American dream isn’t easy in real life. It requires hard work, ingenuity, old-fashioned gumption, and no small amount of luck – how many people are still living in the projects for every Jay-Z or Sonya Sotomayor? However, at Knight Realms, power, wealth and influence inevitably accrue to players who simply show up; leveling up is the perfected, democratized version of the American dream in which everyone is exceptional enough to “make it.”


So in conclusion – America’s culture of litigiousness impacts game play both structurally – creating incentives for larps to run as businesses, which in turn impacts storylines through forgiving death mechanics, continuous plots, and lack of touching.

America’s complex relationship with history and cultural rhetoric of equality mean that accuracy in setting, race and class aren’t motivating goals.

Finally, elaborate rules systems enforce in-game equality among players and enforce a certain kind of meritocracy in which hard workers get ahead, recreating the American rags-to-riches trope.

7 thoughts on “Don’t Touch or I’ll Sue: American larp as national metaphor

  1. Pingback: Three Speeches on American larp » Lizzie Stark

  2. Re: the idea of rules creating equality, are you able to show that traditional tabletop rules like D&D introduced rules for the sake of equality? In my opinion, most of the overcomplicated larps simply inherited the complex rules of games like D&D, often by trying to directly port the rules from the table to a live format.

    The result of those rules, IMO, is actually institutionalised *inequality* – the capacity of the player to accrue skill points or levels, or whatever, and pass a % on to their next character, means that the people joining the campaign will never achieve the levels of those who started early.

    This might be different if, say, a game focused on things like literacy and historical knowledge, but where fighting is the focus of the rules (and it so often is), the attempt to create equality through rules fails. You end up with 4 types of player:

    > Crap at fighting, no skills
    > Crap at fighting, lots of skills
    > Good at fighting, no skills
    > Good at fighting, lots of skills

    Without rules, people are either crap at fighting or good. With the rules, the differential becomes more significant.

    • I don’t think I have to show that traditional tabletop rules were knowingly used to create equality in games, sort of like I don’t need to show that upper management of a big company is sexist when talking about sexism in the workplace. Both the upper management’s sexism, and the equality produced by tabletop style rules (in tabletop or larp) are entrenched and not necessarily conscious.

      But that does not mean that they aren’t products of larger cultural values that have gone unexamined or are invisible to people who work within the system.

  3. While Your Points Still Stand, Kr Has Some Legacy To Its Ruleset And Game Design, As It Was Inspired By LAIRE Which Was Inspired By NERO. I Have No Idea Why My Phone Capitalized Every First Letter.