What is normal? Reflections on ‘Leaving Mundania’ Chapter 1 & 2

Having read Lizzie Stark’s book on the US LARP scene, I was reflecting on the many everyday aspects of the LARP community that are represented there which I have also encountered. The book describes the experience of attending LARP for the first time, the connection between LARP and pen and paper roleplay games (also known as tabletop), and the central role that participation in the LARP community beyond the game itself holds in the life histories of some people. There is also an implicit discussion around LARPers defining themselves against a “normal” stereotype which is not always accepted by the “normal” people they encounter.

In these descriptions, LARP is taken seriously, and Lizzie makes a point of highlighting the skills and benefits that participants take from the activity into their lives. She highlights the close bonds of the community that in many cases substitute for difficult or dysfunctional family relations. One of the defining features of being a LARPer, however, seems to be the expectation that the activity is never taken seriously by outsiders. Or, in rare cases, is taken far too seriously and considered some sort of obsession. I once read an introduction to a collection of short stories by a well known horror writer who highlighted how the word ‘hobby’ was used to cover any number of peculiar and irrational obsessions. In this light it is fairly easy to extend the curiosity about LARP to many well known and accepted hobbies.

In previous posts I have compared LARP to football, not only because that is a hobby I have particular difficulty understanding myself, but also because it has a strong cultural currency. When meeting football fans I find it difficult to appreciate their arguments about the rules, their fascination with the tactics and talent of individual footballers, or the aggressive camaraderie that accompanies wearing the same scarf as everyone else. Yet these activities are very similar to those engaged in by LARPers. The ‘cultural currency’ and associated stereotyping, however, is not one of machismo and belligerence (as often associated with football fans), but instead often portrayed as one of unattractive friendless ‘nerds’ with dubious social skills, self-image problems and ‘fringe’ attitudes to prevailing social structures and politics. Football fans, then, are ‘super’normal, while LARPers are associated with a not-quite-normal ‘sub’class. Like any stereotype, these are insulting generalisations that apply to few in the hobby (though I don’t doubt there is some truth in any stereotype for some individuals). However, an important core aspect of the LARP community for many is its high tolerance of diversity. As such, people are potentially more likely to be open about matters they might otherwise keep hidden from public knowledge.

In Lizzie’s book, there is an incident where LARPers in a public space suspend their activities while some non-LARPers pass through the area, while the LARPers shout “look out, normals”, a label which the individuals concerned mildly object to. By contrast, I thought about occassions when I have encountered football fans in the street, roving groups of ‘lads’ chanting and singing at anyone they encounter, with one at the back of the group quietly apologising for his friends’ behaviour. LARP, it seems, makes a point of excluding (protecting?) outsiders, while football fandom attempts to recruit them. Personally, friends have accused me in the past of being something of a LARP ‘evangelist’, attempting (like the football fans) to ‘convert’ people I meet to the practice of the hobby, and I wonder at the role this distinction between ‘us’ and ‘others’ plays in reinforcing the stereotypes mentioned above. Further, the strength of the definition of those in the LARP community as “not normal” seems to be foundational to the community in some way.

One possible answer might be that the attempts made by the community to present themselves as “not normal” is the equivalent to the apologetic friend of the football fans. LARPers, much like football fans, are often causing disruption of order in public spaces by appearing in strange costumes, making conversation on outlandish topics or shouting rule-based effects at one another. It is possible that by shouting “suspend play! Time-freeze! Normals!” LARPers attempt to convey the message to general passers-by; “yes, we are doing something strange, sorry for the disruption.”

An important aspect of the instance in ‘Leaving Mundania,’ however, was that the so-called normals responded in kind; “we are not normals!” which rather upsets the attempts by the LARPers to distinguish strict boundaries around their gameplay. In many UK LARPs I participate in, over teh past ten years there has been a decrease in the use of ‘normal’ as a label used to define the community against, with scenarios such as the one Lizzie described pausing with the use of phrases such as “people passing”, “public”, or “mind the path”. This seems to imply the possibility of a growing awareness that people coming across a LARP event may have ‘not-quite-normal’ tendencies of their own, and even might want to ask where to go to buy a costume and join in.

As always, comments welcome below.

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LARP Glossary

I thought it would be helpful to people who are new to the idea of LARP to have some quick reference terms handy. These are just a few key words which are used frequently in the UK context with which I am familiar.

LARP Live Action Roleplay. A game of interactive theatre.

System Organising body of persistent world games. Also refers to the rule set used by that particular organisation

Player Self-determined participant in the game. Usually pays to participate.

Character Theatrical role created and performed by a player in line with the rules of the System.

Crew People helping to coordinate and run the event. May include monsters, logistical work (often hard labour!), referees, caterers. All non-Players (the majority of the time).

Keener A player described by other players as overenthusiastic about the game, to the extent that they may obsessively talk about the game world or display game behaviours outside of time in (for example, being in costume early).

Monster Volunteer theatrical ‘extra’ performing a predetermined role in line with the rules of the System directed by a referee. Usually also a player.

Monster Room Backstage, out of character area where volunteers await instructions and are provided with relevant costume and makeup to play their specified roles.

In Character / IC The state of performing the game. Also refers to geographical zones where the game is played, as in “this field is an in character area”.

Out of Character / OOC The state of not performing the game, or temporarily not performing a character role. Also refers to geographical zones where the game is suspended, as in “the bathrooms and showers are out of character”.

Referee An administrator of the theatrical performance, adjudicates on rules and facilitates game performance for players and monsters. Also ensures safety requirements are met.

Time In The beginning of the game performance. Also used as an instruction by referees to indicate the start of the game; “We’re now time-in”.

Time Out The end of the game performance. Also used as an instruction by referees to indicate the end of the game. The instruction “time freeze” is also used to temporarily suspend game performance.

Time Freeze A call made, usually by a referee, to temporarily suspend gameplay. This may be to set an effect in motion, introduce new elements into the game, or as a result of a safety issue. Players are required to remain in their current position and usually keep their eyes closed.

XP Experience points. An earned currency that allows players to improve their character’s abilities within the endogenous rules of the System.

Phys-rep Abbreviation of ‘physical representation’. A stand-in or prop indicating a reality within the game. Roped off areas may ‘phys-rep’ magical barriers, for example.

Introduction to LARP

This is a post to try to describe what LARP is, aimed at the ‘uninitiated’. First of all, the acronym stands for “live action role play”. It is often alternatively described as “cross country pantomime”, “interactive drama”, or my personal favourite; “running around in dress up while hitting people with sticks”. Importantly, LARP is a leisure activity just like football or golf, with particular rules and codes of practice, jargon and governing bodies. It is a game without clear win conditions, the objective is usually simply to continue playing (avoiding character death), and enjoying the experience.   There is a theatrical element to it, as the rules and regulations can only go so far – much is down to individual performance. There is also a (directed or undirected) narrative element to it, and just as golfers will talk about their game, roleplayers will talk about their character’s adventures. LARP is an international hobby, particularly common in Europe, the UK and the USA, though there are significant cultural differences. In the UK and USA in particular, it is much maligned as a “geeky” or “nerdy” activity, a game for spotty immacture boys and unattractive girls, or people with personality problems and social inadequacies.

Scale of LARP:

LARP is an activity which is very different depending upon the scale at which it is run. You can run a small scale larp with only four or five players which will be fairly intensive, run over a short space of time (say an evening), and tailored around the interactions of those characters. Most mystical horror LARPs (such as those drawing on the theme of HP Lovecraft’s tales, referred to as Cthulhu LARP), run at this scale, with a maximum of around 20 players.  At the opposite extreme is ‘fest’ LARP. These run on a comparable scale to a small music festival, complete with the dangers of outdoor life, portaloos and at the mercy of the British summer. I have previously been at a ‘fest’ LARP which had over 7,000 participants which could at times be overwhelming, especially in a line battle where the confusion between friend and foe was an experience to remember. It’s not in many hobbies you can find yourself behind enemy lines, going through your own miniature version of “Saving Private Ryan” while covered in green facepaint and attempting to avoid gentlemen wearing kilts “authentically”. These are a completely different type of game to the small scale events, and are often focussed on long term ongoing participation (players continuing to participate in sequential events), character development and competitive elements of play. These may include “capture the flag” or ‘battle’ type elements. Due to the scale of these events, it is possible for players to take the game at their own pace, to ‘drop out’ for a few hours, or to maintain whatever level of intensity they are comfortable with. Players are likely to have minimal contact with organisers and have more autonomy.

Purpose of LARP:

What is the purpose of football? I recall trying to explain the hobby to my father shortly after I had returned from a large-scale fest event, and after about two hours of conversation he simply said “sure, I understand how it works, but what’s the point?” – I admit I was flummoxed. I never understood why people would want to sit in front of the TV and watch grown men chase a ball around a field, but then I wasn’t knowledgable about the rules of the game. LARP is like anything else, a game, and an entertainment. However, an important truth is that it is not designed for an audience. The rules are difficult to absorb by observation alone, and part of the fun lies in introducing new material to the improvisation. Participants also have different parts of the game experience they might enjoy. There is the competitive element of combat, the puzzle solving aspect of plot engagement, the personal experience of immersion in escapist fantasy. There are also enjoyable aspects in the organising of the games, in the development of consistent narratives, the portrayal of interesting characters, and of seeing these creations ‘come to life’ in gameplay.
LARP supposedly also has benefits as a learning format, in therapy and in personal development. However, these are not the direct aims of the majority of the games discussed here, though they may occur as side-effects.

The experience of LARP:

(or, what it looks like to an outsider)

So what does LARP look like? Feel like? Sound like? The pictures above give you something of a glimpse into the aesthetic of fantasy games. The odour of grass and canvas, leather and suncream, underpinned by the sour tang of spilled beer and toilet chemicals make up the scent of fantasy larp. By contrast, the smell of dusty tweed, gravy, old books and extinguished candles sums up the scent of 1920s horror LARP. As a player the costume usually feels distinctly different to everyday clothing; you might feel the weight of leather pouches and scabbards hanging off a belt by your waist, the constriction of armour on your legs, or the unusual warmth of a tweed hunting cap. This feeling becomes the ‘feel’ of the character, affecting your movement and behaviour. To anyone looking at the hobby from afar (perhaps through binoculars) it looks something like a fancy dress party, but with people often wearing serious expressions. Someone might raise a ‘sword’ or a ‘firearm’, and suddenly what seems like a movie-style stand-off is ruined by a chorus of “normal”, “BANG”, “Triple!”, “Covering Fire!”, “Flaming!” and people running to and fro in high-visibility construction jackets. Each of these terms may have meaning in the rules of the game world (each has it’s own system of rules), but from the outside it does tend to seem plain silly. This is generally why LARPers are a little averse to an ‘audience’ of the general public. To the players however, these experiences may mean the difference between ‘life’ and ‘death’; the loss of a loved one, or the defeat of a great evil. And as for those people in high-vis vests, they are considered invisible by players, and some have been playing the game for so long they have even convinced themselves to ‘edit out’ seeing these caretakers of the game experience. However, if you have ever had building work going on, you know just how invisible a high-vis vest and hard hat can make the average individual.

What LARP is not:

As mentioned above, LARP tends to be much maligned, and there are numerous rumours about what the games are “really” about. They have even featured in some fundamentalist religious propaganda as satanic rituals. I hope I can reassure you that LARP is, in my experience, as harmless as theatre. However, the game has often been tarred as hiding other peculiarities.
LARP is Antisocial – This is a common claim in the UK, particularly among university sports clubs. LARP is, in fact, highly social. The majority of the game is dependent upon the ability to interact with others in highly innovatory ways in order to engage with the game world, further the plot and develop the character.
One possibility about how this rumour is perpetuated comes from the fact that LARPers tend to make a point of courteously ensuring their game does not confuse or interfere with the goings on of the general public, while in public space. Comparing this with the behaviour of your average sporting ngroup, who in some circumstances aggressively encourage people to participate, there is a distinct difference in approach.
LARP is Men Only – The claim that LARP is a masculine hobby does have some foundation in the UK, where participation in LARP has been male dominated in the past. However this has become less significant over the past 10 years and the gender split in participation tends to be more equal.
LARP is Sexual Play – Oh how many times I have to respond to this question. No, LARP is not about sex. Is football about sex? Or operatic theatre? This is not to say that there is no sex at LARP. There are plenty of adults participating in the game capable of making their own decisions. However, the point is that there is no more connection between LARP and sex than you are likely to find at any outdoor festival.
LARP is a kids thing – People of all ages participate in LARP. Notoriously, in one of the games I participate in, three generations of the same family play in the game. There is no requirement for players to be of a certain age or to be able-bodied in order to participate. There are some difficulties experienced by organisers which may mitigate against equal participation opportunities, but these are not inherent difficulties of the game format.

Have I missed something?

Please feel free to add questions in the comments…

LARP – Cultural differences

Today’s post is bright to you partly in response to Lizzie Stark’s commentary on the differences between Nordic LARP and US LARP. Since UK LARP has as long a provenance as either of these two countries (according to Lizzie’s book anyway), I thought it would be worth highlighting the differences through focussing on a key distinction in UK LARP: the IC/OOC divide.

IC is the abbreviation for In Character, playing the game, while OOC is the abbreviation for Out of Character, or not playing the game (temporarily or otherwise). People say “I’m just going OC for a moment” or “I’m just going to get into costume and nip to the bathroom and then I’ll be IC”. The ability to maintain and manage the process of being IC or OOC is an important part of being considered a ‘good’ roleplayer.

In the UK, many games commonly have geographical zones which correspond with being onstage or offstage, IC or OOC. Bathrooms for example are often OOC and at ‘fest’ events there is usually an OOC camping area as well as an IC camping area. Players will often ‘go’ OOC during a part of the day and chat with other players who IC they have little interaction with. So why is this important?

Like the Nordic LARPs, UK LARP often aims for a level of immersion which allows for both personal (internal) plot development in terms of character growth, as well as external (world) plot which requires puzzle-solving and skill use (determined mostly by the rules). A significant part of playing the game lies in maintaining immersion while engaging with the rules. As a case in point, in a previous game scenario I suggested some magician types who were working with my character refer to a spell as lasting for “600 heartbeats”, which was well received since the rules stated a 10 minute period. Attempts to conceal the IC /OOC boundary in this way are common in UK LARP, in order to promote an immersive experience.

Metagaming, the activity of using knowledge gained outside the state of play to advantage oneself in the game, is disapproved of as potentially undermining the opportunity to engage in externally designed plot (much the same as in US LARP). It also has repercussions for personal development, and many systems have strict restrictions against playing characters with similar histories consecutively. However, an awareness of the meta-level aspects of the game, once again, is often seen as the mark of a seasoned player. Combat moving into uneven territory will often be declared “holy ground” or even referred to as a dangerous cliff face on the initiative of one player in order to mark it off to other players as an area to stay away from. Further, in order to advance character development, players may speak to one another OOC beforehand so as to plan scenarios for IC interaction, such as the meeting of long-lost family, or even hated enemies.

Going OOC is sometimes an activity with unclear etiquette in UK LARP. Which geographical zones are definitely OOC can change according to the game organisers, and smaller scale LARPs are more likely to demand that players remain IC at all times during the game (including while asleep!). Fest LARPs, by contrast often have clear zones for catering and toilet facilities which are specifically OOC. Transitions between these areas are considered a matter of etiquette, and putting one hand in the air is a near-universal sign in UK LARPs that you are not present IC. It is also tiring after a while, which encourages you not to go about it for too long!  However, each system has its own accepted behaviour, and the use of ‘safewords’ is nowhere near as common or as frequent as appears to be the case in Nordic LARP.

If anyone has any further reflections on the distinctions between UK LARP and the European/US models, please feel free to comment below.

LINKS

Lizzie’s post:

http://lizziestark.com/2012/08/08/nordic-larp-for-noobs/

Cantwell’s (2009) comparison between UK and French LARP:

http://knutepunkt.laiv.org/2009/book/TenComparisonsBetweenUKLRPAndFrenchGN/

A New Beginning

I started this blog quite some time ago in the hope of using it to facilitate writing. I struggle with getting my thoughts down on a page, to the extent that I will do just about anything with them rather than write them down. I thought that with a blog, an audience, this might make a difference. However, the internet is a big place, with few landmarks or signposts. So I am starting anew, with a particular focus. For some time I have been performing, doing, organising and coordinating as well as writing about, LARP. It even made its way into my PhD Thesis. I am convinced that it is both fundamentally interesting as a hobby and as a social phenomenon. It is also amenable to photography, although it is usually impossible to an outsider to “guess what it is yet”. I will therefore use this blog to write about LARP, for a non-LARPing audience, as well as for those who may wish to reflect on the hobby.

Before I take on the task of writing my own extensive wanderings on the subject, it is worth making a short list of other sources on the subject. I am enormously indebted to the publications of the Knutepunkt/Solmukohta/Knudepunkt conferences which I have sadly never been able to attend but have read from afar with great interest. The website does tend to move around but with the help of Google you can find most publications online (I recently found most through here: http://xklsv.org/viewwiki.php?title=Knutepunkt ).

In traditional format, I will also be discussing the book “leaving Mundania” written by Lizzie Stark which focuses on the hobby in the US, with input from the Nordic scene. She lists her top sources here: http://lizziestark.com/2011/11/28/advice-for-first-time-larp-scholars/

As a community source, I am not always a regular attendee on this particular forum, but the Rule 7 forums are a longstanding location of discussion and debate for roleplayers and can be found here: http://forums.rule7.co.uk/

The popular German magazine on the hobby “LARPzeit” is also now published online in English: http://www.larpzeit.de/international/

Finally, in the past the journal of interactive drama has featured articles on LARP, although it has had something of a turbulent history. Archived material can be found here: http://www.interactivedramas.info/jarchive.htm

Aside from other writing on LARP, there has also been material on roleplaying games generally, and an often overlooked source is Gary Alan Fine’s “Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as social worlds”.