43 years – The evolution of LARP, Magic and the Counterspell

As Douglas MacArthur once said, “Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind”. In LARP however, it’s a different story. Following rules at a LARP is one of the key factors that can help others and ourselves get as much out of a game as possible. This is primarily down to the power of creative constraints. The idea that it’s easier to create something and indeed live in something, that has these predefined rules.

That being the case however while LARP rules are indeed not made to be broken, they are in fact made to be altered and revised. Almost all LARP systems big and small will revisit their rules, whether for balancing tweaks or adding new mechanics. With this in mind, let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at how one such rule has evolved with the times and trends. Today we’re going to be having a look at the mage’s favorite, counterspell.

The first recorded UK LARP began at Peckforton park during 1982. The system called Treasure Trap took inspiration from a myriad of fantasy tropes but more importantly set the stage for the bombardment of sucessors that would follow. Before that, however, let’s take a step back eight years. In 1974 Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson brought us the first ever iteration of Dungeons and Dragons. One of the first fantasy role playing games of its kind. The system introduced a whole selection of tropes that would soon be mimicked and copied for generations to come. Including abilities, classes and magic items.

The catalyst – Dungeons and Dragons

In 1977 the Dungeon and Dragons rules were revised with a more unified approach. This is where our story on how the ‘counterspell’ as we know it today has evolved. In the AD&D (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) rules there is an Abjuration Spell called Dispel Magic. 

“A dispel magic spell will not affect a specifically enchanted item such as a scroll, magic ring, wand, rod… It will destroy magic potions (They are treated as 12 level for the purpose of this spell), remove spells cast upon persons or objects or counter the casting of spells in an area of effect. The base chance for success of dispel magic is 50%. For every level  of experience of the character casting the dispell magic above of the creature whose magic is to be dispelled, the base chance is increased by 5%.” 

– Dispel Magic | AD&D

The rule is long winded and worded in a form that is mostly no longer used however it’s purpose can be seen quite clearly -Perform a spell that can remove the effect of magic from a person or object. Looking at it, this is quite a reactive approach. Instead of directly stopping the spell taking effect you are instead removing it after the fact. 

As well as this a mechanic that has stayed with most tabletop systems but has faded almost entirely from LARP is the chance factor. Only if the caster is 10 levels above the target is the spell 100% guaranteed to take effect.

Roots of the UK LARP scene – Treasure Trap

Moving forward a handful of years we can look at 1982 where the UK LARP scene was still an infant. While the original club closed in 1985 various splinter groups carried on the Treasure Trap name. As the original Treasure Trap rules are quite hard to get your hands on we’re going to be looking at the rules for one of these splinter groups. The Durham University Treasure Trap is still active today and their rules can be found from a quick search.

Following the trend from a sizable part of Treasure Trap’s inspiration, Dungeons and Dragons, the rules system for Treasure Trap are quite complex. However, the premise of magic can be broken down into four rules:

  1. Elementalism is magic cast by manipulating the energy of the elemental planes.
  2. Mages use a ‘focus’ to channel the power of the elements to cast spells.
  3. Mages have an amount of ‘mana’ that determines how many spells they can cast per day.
  4. Attempting to cast a spell with insufficient mana causes the mage to die in the process.

Also continuing the trend from AD&D the rules of Treasure Trap include a spell called ‘Dispels’. A Dispel in Treasure Trap has three main purposes. These being:

“A dispel cast on a character or item will remove all spells of a level equal to or lower than the dispel currently affecting the target. Only spells with a duration may be removed, the effects of instant spells are not counteracted.

Alternatively, you may cast a dispel to counteract another character casting a spell of equal or lower level to the dispel. This use of Dispel does not require a spell vocal, simply the activation phrase. For the spell to be successfully countered, you must cast the dispel immediately upon the opponent completing their spell vocal.

Elemental elves and elementals take damage from dispels cast against them. If an elf has any ongoing effects then these are simply dispelled as normal. If the elf is not under the effect of any spells then they take damage equal to half the level of the dispel…”

– Dispels | Durham Treasure Trap

After reading the two it’s easy to see where the inspiration for this spell came from. That being the case, however, Treasure Trap also built onto the skill with additional features that would later be used across the LARP scene. The second part of this spell is especially interesting. This is because this is where the premise of the ‘Counterspell’, we see today, originates. This spell is also interesting because of its diverse nature. I can see such mechanics today being split across multiple skills, being a: Dispel magic, Counterspell, and a Dismiss spell. This is definitely an approach that has been taken over time. This is possibly down to the influx of players and the need to spread skills across the player base.

The ‘old school’ LARP – Legion of Dreams

Going a few more years forward we can look at another LARP, that was around before many of us the LARPers in the scene today. In 1986 to the early 90’s Legion Of Dreams “An old-school fantasy setting” LRP, was created. Like Durham Treasure Trap, Legion of Dreams (or LoD) is still running weekend events in 2017, 31 years on. Legion of Dreams runs a rules set called ‘Realms Of Eldritch’ and has been continuously updating them over time. That being the case however the rules do keep the flavor from the time.

This is however where we can start seeing rules becoming more bespoke to the game teams running them. It becomes less of a question of ‘is this something we can do?’ to ‘is this something we want in our game?’ The question of if a spell fits a setting and does it fit the playstyle of the game team.  While LoD does not have a direct Counterspell or Dispell Magic mechanic we can see some similarities to the Treasure Trap dispell rule. This is also where we can start to see the more diverse rule in Treasure Trap being broken down as predicted earlier. ‘Dismiss’ is a spell in the ‘Rules Of Eldritch’ system. (EDIT: this effect was added later on, around 2007/2008).

“Holds a single lower level undead creature in the power of the caster. So long as appropriate chanting and concentration is maintained the undead is powerless to act against the caster and will be slowly forced in whichever direction the caster directs. If backed into a solid object, the undead is destroyed… This will generally not work on undead whose power is 8 or greater.”

– Dismiss | Legion of Dreams – Rules of Eldritch

This has direct similarities to the aforementioned Treasure Trap rule. The trend of being able to directly harm or dismiss a creature, be it elemental or undead, by the use of a ‘dispell’ of some kind. This is also a trend that will continue as its own skill in more modern LARP systems.

Modern Day LARPs – Lorien Trust

Taking another jump in time, this one to the early 90’s. 1992 was the year Lorien Trust, a popular LARP fest system, took roots. Lorien Trust, also know as LT, has gone through a plethora of changes, both rules and structural over time. The LT system now stands in the same format it has for at least half a dozen years.

Magic in LT is broken down into three main sections; Incantation, Healing, and Spellcasting. Most of the player base at an LT event will have access to one of these trees of magic. With that in mind, all of these fields have access to a spell called ‘Countermagic’.

“This stops a level 1 or 2 ranged effect from occurring, except for dismiss or control… Countermagic must be started within 3 seconds of the completion of the casting of the effect to be countered, and cannot counter Mass effects. You can still cast this spell even if the effect that you are countering would prevent you from doing so.”

– Countermagic | Lorien Trust

This rule continues the trend of the bigger, more diverse, rule being broken down into more situational rules. In LT this could have been done for a myriad of reasons however the two most apparent come down to making skills that are low ref intensive and allowing for players to vary in skill sets.

Something else of note here is the simplicity of the rule. This mechanic also continues the trend of ‘levels’ of magic. If at a more simplistic level. Unlike the original Dungeons and Dragons ruling, this mechanic is broken into two parts. These being countermagic and High countermagic. If you can perform High countermagic then you can ‘counter’ high-level spells, otherwise, you cannot.

Years of experience – Empire LRP

If this was a movie this section would be the deleted scenes as I could not decide if this section fitted the narrative. However, as I mentioned above I think it’s important to know when LARPs have decided to add rules and in some cases keep them away. Empire LARP was set up in 2013 and is the latest of LARP settings from Profound Decisions (PD). The system adds to several years of experience from the PD team and features a magic system unlike most in the hobby.

When creating the rules for Empire the conscious decision was made to keep skills like counterspell out of the setting. This was for a plethora of reasons, including the use of implements in the system and the clunkiness of the mechanic. This cements our theory mentioned when discussing LoD. The idea that LARP systems have developed to the stage where systems are being designed around having specific rules sets, for taste or setting reasons, over implementing rules because other systems use them.

LARP in 2017 – Futures End

Now our last stop, 2016. March 2016 was the first event for Futures End. An event that has won a myriad of awards at the UK LARP awards 2017. The Futures End setting is one of super heroes, pyskers, and magic. Futures End continues our trend of the counterspell, however, takes our prediction of stripping down skills to the next level. Up until now, a counterspell has allowed someone to nullify the effect of a spell from any source to any target. That being the case, however, Future’s End breaks this up into two parts; being able to counter spells targeted at yourself, and being able to counter spells targetted at others. The first of these is shown below:

“You have the ability to counter any psychic technique or magical spell which s targetted at you. This cannot be used to target mass or global effects.”

– Counterspell (self) | Futures End

This is an interesting change as it continues the trend of making skills more unique for the individual. Instead of having one skill in Treasure Trap we have the possibility of four. This forces players to work together in performing all of these skills when needed. This also serves the need of players feeling ‘special’ when they find themselves with a skill that few others possess. Finally, it’s also interesting to look at how the simplicity of LARP and role-playing has changed. From the 93 words of Dungeons and Dragons to the 144 of Treasure Trap. The same, or at least similar, spell in Future End is only a mere 27. This, of course, makes the rules far more inviting and easier to learn for new players to the system or hobby as a whole.

The Evolution – Conclusion

So that’s been a journey down memory lane, whether we were there at the time or not. When it comes to the wire, however, what can we learn from the evolution of the counterspell? Well we can learn a few things:

  • We’ve learned that spells and skills are no longer a catch all. Spells now are less diverse to allow more players a chance to feel special and to add that extra challenge to overcoming problems.
  • We’ve also learned that the simplicity of these skills and spells has improved. Whether it’s having shorter word counts or removing the complexity of endless levels. 
  • What we’ve also learned is how far this hobby has come, from it’s roots to being a place where we have over 1500 players at fest events.

2 Comments

  1. There is one slight issue with the Legion of Dreams bit… the Dismiss spell was only added to the system around 2007/2008. The same holds true for Banish, and these are the only spells in the system with that sort of effect.

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