The art of Mars, of war, holds a very special and central place in western culture. It is also central, both physically and intellectually, to many games. Rules to perform battle, while not actually fighting, are probably the smallest common denominator between larps, tabletops and strategy gaming/simulation through the ages. There are very many rule systems for fighting out there, ranging from moving whole armies on a piece of cardboard to performing a rock-scissor-paper to resolve a one-on-one mental combat. Still there was room for at least one more – one that works with the physical feeling of engaging in a fight.
As its sister-method, Ars amandi, Ars marte was developed to help players in live action roleplaying games (larps). Specifically, to enable them to explore feelings in situations that physical concerns or restrictions might make impossible without some form of moderation. In other words, the main goal isn’t to resolve the outcome of combat but rather to fight, albeit safely. The typical application would be in situations where the character involves in hand-to-hand combating, be it a bar brawl among friends or on the battlefield after the weapons have broken. However, physical capabilities, willingness to bleed and/or die are points where the player and character generally differ. Thus we need methods of ensuring that, although the character fights, bleeds and risk life as well as limb, the player does not.
In some games the designers might ask themselves, why at all have any combat possibilities if that’s not something the players want to experience? It’s a good question. Using a dice, rock-scissor-paper and such methods to resolve outcome have probably evolved from a desire to play on events before and after combat, skipping the combat itself. There are games though where players do desire to tell stories that involve combat as such. Players want to feel a physical ordeal; the surge of adrenaline, fear and other feelings connected with fighting, still without mortal peril or without some their real life bodies’ technical or fitness limitations. That’s where using Ars marte might come in handy.
Using bodies to communicate and actually play (communicate within) the game was explored in the tango-driven game Fair Verona and inspired us to deepen that form of communication in other physical expression. Finding a game mechanic for fighting that would allow that was one of the main motivators. Another motivation is wanting to tell the next story in the Between the worlds trilogy of which Between heaven and sea was the first.
Most larp methods can be used as part of the fictive narrative (diegetically) or as a symbol for a concept that will have different effects in game and off game (extra diegetically). If a latex sword is used in a game and can be used to perform the killing of a person it’s either used diegetically: the people in this fictive world are fatally allergic to latex and the sword is exactly what it is in both the players and the characters world; or extra diegetcally: the latex sword symbolizes a metal sword in the fiction and to the character that’s what it is although the player won’t be hurt.
A case where Ars marte would be used digetically is where this way of fighting is the way the characters actually fight. Maybe it’s a traditional form of wrestling to decide who is the dominant mother of the tribe. A typical extra diegetical usage would be in a situation that we would describe in other words in our story, such as a fist fight where the characters really throw punches at each other, possibly knocking out teeth, breaking skin and causing possible brain damage but what the players actually do is Ars marte.
The basic Ars marte is a form a standing up wrestling, pommeling. If the game requires a possibility to win, there are several agreements that could be made as add-ons to satisfy the intention of why it’s used and make it fit the specific group of players and game.
Ars marte is a form of standing wrestling, using only arms and balance. It’s designed to be a one on one technique. The players engage by facing each other. The players have one hand on each others (opposite) elbow and the other on each others back. The heads should be on each others shoulder with contact between the heads (if possible). This is to avoid the heads colliding. There is NO use of leghooks etc.
The players aim for having both their arms around the other player in a firm grip, a dominant position. This means that they should try to get the hand that is on the elbow on the inside of that arm instead. As both players have this objective the result is a simultaneous crawl motion.
This is not about strength. Trying to muscle your way in is rather counterproductive. Neither is it only about speed or agility. It is a technique that you can practice and become better at although it’s also a lot about timing and motivation. As you bring in characters, it’s very easy to get exhausted and really ‘fight’ even when you ‘play to lose’.
As players get comfortable with the crawling motion they can also start to move around. Moving around each other they can also work with changing speed, aggression, height and different moves.
As in any physical role-play, players can put different feelings and moods into their body language. This greatly enhances the integration of the fight into the fiction of the game. The Ars marte try to mitigate the idea of conflating the player and character in fight scenes (the characters skill is restricted to the players skill and the goal is generally to be as good as possible regardless of character).
A base level to experiment is “simple” emotions like insecurity, knowing who’s the better fighter, resentment, fear or fun etc. It’s however possible to put a lot more complex expression into the play. These could be such concepts as love-fighting, having to fight your best friend against your will, fighting to avoid something else that the character finds more scary (making time pass) and so on.
The objective of the method is to engage in the feeling of fighting. However, one element of fights is that they end. How they end can be different between different usages of the methods. In a standard version the player that manages to get their arms around the other player and hold them like that, in a basic dominant position, ‘wins’. The players can then either just split up and the fight is over or after this play an ending to the fight based on that outcome.
To widen the possibility and variation of movement you can also include other positions as a ‘win’. This could be a dominant position where one of the arms is inside your grip but where your co-player can’t move. It could be that you are no longer in front of the player but at their back. There’s a lot of other moves that can be included in the physical technique to expand it at make it more fluent. We recommend using some of the following:
- Basic dominant position – both arms inside the opponents guard facing each other
- Stepping past – For example by using the hand on the elbow move the opponents arm in between you to get around them to get a grip around the back.
- Going under – Either lift up the opponents arm or bend your knees to get under the other players grip and come up inside their guard or around their back.
- Turn opponent – Break the other players balance by gently tugging their arm to move them around to where you can grab their back.
- Top grips – If the other player moves the feet back far enough it’s easy to get a hand over the shoulder and press the co-player into a grip across chest and shoulder. This must include at least one other limb than the neck. It is never ok to grip only around the neck, as it is very dangerous.
Remember that, whatever the winning conditions are, the actual resolution and played ending does not have to happen at the same time.
If you want the links to the films showcasing the method look at our vimeo profile:
You find more on the method of ars amandi here, including a description of how we do our workshops. The same frame can be used for a workshop of ars marte.
 In fair Verona, by Jesper Bruun and Tue Beck Saarie