LARP Precedents & Antecedents (Reflections on Leaving Mundania Chapter 3)

Unfortunately I missed last week’s regular update due to our two-day research retreat in the peak district. The windswept moors, however, and the rocky crags did give me some pause for thought on the geography of LARP. There are some areas which look fabulous as settings on the big screen which simply do not work as event venues, either for reasons of comfort or of safety. However, the geography of a place also has significant implications for staging events which is not always necessarily helpful.

Queen Elizabeth a LARPer, eh?

Well not really, in Lizzie Stark’s book, Elizabeth I was immensely entertained by theatrical pageants which required her participation as monarch. She was hardly playing a character, she was ‘playing’ Queen, which, incidentally, she was…

However, the point that links LARP with pageantry, improvised theatre, war simulation games and the like is an important one. LARP has a lengthy history that differs in the UK from the US, and sources differ as to whether it emerged in Europe simultaneously, or subsequently to the US. Certainly most persistent LARP games in the UK trace their emergence to “Treasure Trap” of the 1980s, which was a predominantly freeform game that made use of a local heritage site, sadly not the class of venue often available to LARP groups. In contemporary LARP, numerous country houses, nature parks and scout camps still play host to games up and down the country, as do many university campuses.

If the theatrical characters envisioned by a community ideology (in the case of pageants) or a playwright are too constrained to be comparable to LARP, and the intellectual rigour of war games is too regulated, a comparison can at least be drawn by reference to the use of space and venues to create the immersive experience so particular to the hobby. The Tudor and Elizabethan antics often emphasise the ludic reinterpretation of space to create chaotic revelry in the order of the Royal Court, and events of heroic and fantastical stature in the countryside (assisted as often as not by a crew of theatrical performers, puppeteers and staged effects). This element is shared by contemporary LARP and art installations alike, although one attracts more social status than the other.

As LARPers arrive in period homes or scout camps across the country, they often disrupt the everyday goings on and expectations of the inhabitants. They do not fit the genteel middle class tourist stereotype, their costumes provoke attention and their aims at reinterpreting lawns as rolling grasslands, dining rooms as construction areas for outlandish beasts and tranquil parks as fields of battle resemble the disruption Queen Elizabeth’s touring court may have caused as it descended upon a rural idyll. Scout groups and those who maintain period houses are sometimes thrown out of their depth by individuals who instead of demanding TV and phone facilities, ask if they can build a fire in the portico or drape lights from the hedges. Public liability insurance is only offerred by a small number of firms, for while injury in service of entertainment to Queen Elizabeth may have brought honour on a family, a dog-walker slipping in treacle placed to represent eldritch gloop is more likely to make claims for any subsequent accident.

In summary, while it is valuable and interesting to identify the links between LARP and similar historical activities, it is important to recognise that one of the features of LARP lies in a very inward-facing community, carefully trying to limit the accidental incursion of their world into that of passers-by. Compare this to the inclusive agenda of the historical pageantry and even of modern day contemporary art, which aims to affect others, LARP is focussing on affecting ourselves.

All examples drawn from personal experience. The usual disclaimers regarding my personal point of view apply.

Community Debates I – Immersion versus PvP

Disclaimer: all of the views represented in this article are my own and I confess to immersionist sympathies, though I have tried to represent both perspectives fairly in the below article.

In Live-Action Roleplay there are various different aims and objectives. As a theatrical-simulation experience one significant aim lies in developing a sense of ‘immersion’ in the game world; convincing yourself, even if only for a moment, that you are your character and the events around you are real. This is usually a part of the game new players find difficult, though some are perhaps more ‘natural’ than others. One of the ongoing controversies of LARP lies in the validity of different aims of play. Although LARP is described as a game, much like ‘life’ there are no clear win conditions. Nonetheless, to some it can be considered a ‘lose’ condition if your character dies (especially if this is unexpected or unplanned). There are complex feelings around this issue among the community. While immersion is relatively uncontroversial as a goal of the game, other aims include competitive rivalry to develop greater ‘powers’ or strength according to the game rules. The best way to test this is by player versus player interaction. The matter of PvP (which usually refers to player versus player combat, often resulting in character death) is therefore controversial as it brings these different aims of play into conflict.

Immersive PvP

Taking the broadest possible interpretation of player versus player interaction, every aspect of play in most games incorporates an element of this. Players may (and do) compete on grounds of inventiveness in on the spot improvisation, on costume, on wit, and on talents that cross the in-character / out-of-character boundary, such as music. As such, player versus player interaction which is embedded in the context of the game is the foundation of the roleplaying ‘art’.

PvP which ‘breaks’ immersion

It is possible, however, for some forms of PvP interaction to come into direct conflict with immersion. Where resolution of competition involves extensive recourse to the rules of the game, or where one party perceives the other to be infringing either the letter or spirit of those rules. At such a point, the interaction drifts from in-charater interaction to out of character gameplay (sometimes referred to as ‘meta’).   For the immersionist, this is a deviation from the object of play. For the competitive player, this is recourse to the laws of the game, which form a key part of play. However, the competitive player experiences just as much tension in such conflict, for unless an adjudicating referee is to hand, the trust system on which rules are applied may be infringed (intentionally or unintentionally) by players who are ignorant of the detail of the rules. This is also likely to ‘break’ immersion through creating inconsistencies in the game world.

Other elements

In discussions of roleplay versus immersion, other elements are often introduced into the argument. Some of these I hope to discuss in later posts, as they highlight some of the most interesting parts of LARP as a carefully maintained fantasy world. However, such concerns often detract from the argument above. They include ‘professionalism’, or discussions over the difficulty of maintaining clear internal distinctions between IC (in character) and OOC (out of character) knowledge, emotion and behaviours. There are also concerned discussions over emotive ‘bleed’ as a significant aim of the activity and the emotive distress felt at character death. This in turn often highlights and questions the parasitic relationship between the hobby and ‘real life’ in terms of income and skills; this is often added to the discussion in economic terms related to the cost or time required to put together costume and weapons, the ability to regularly attend events and so on.

The nature of immersion

Roleplay is a narrative game, albeit an improvised one. To maintain the aspect of narrative requires commitment to preserving the game world, sometimes at the expense of the norms of everyday life (as any LARPer who has gone four days with only cold showers will tell you). Narratives cannot continue if the ‘book’ is closed, the ‘tv’ muted, or the fantastical game world interrupted in a similar way. Yet equally, in a world which is not a perfect simulation, some recourse to a world outside the narrative genre is required. It is rare you see a fantasy hero/ine visit the bathroom on camera (unless it furthers the narrative).

Yet the goal of immersion is to be fully absorbed in the flow of the narrative, to set aside the thoughts and worries of an outside world and be ‘in the moment’. This requires support in maintaining the suspension of disbelief, even in order to be the biggest good or bad guy in the field. It is likely that conflict between the goals of PvP and Immersion will always be in some small amount of tension.

Quotes from players (unsolicited by the author):

“Roleplay is a means of escapism, It’s a way to be more theatrical than in real life, to be more than we can be. Immersion does not equal roleplay, I actually prefer tabletop to lrp, It’s easier to lose myself in a world of my imagination uninfringed by others interpretations. I have been to ‘highly immersive’ systems and seen some of the shortest roleplay ever, but with 4 to 5 people sat round a table I have had some of the best, most emotional roleplay in the 15 years I’ve been doing tabletop and lrp. Pvp I support, as long as its well grounded, look at history, famed figures did kill and assassinate each other, heroes and villains should die in battle with each other, and sometimes people who have aroused the ire of bad people should just disappear… I am however against random murders and killings, deaths should be earned. All good stories, historic, mythic, sci fi, all have deaths, and the people killed don’t always know why, and sometimes aren’t even the right people, for me, roleplaying is all about being part of a story, live or die, its about being a good character, not winning, its lrp, not a board game.” Matt Strange

“it’s a difficult line to draw, but it’s the actual monetary investment, the osps and clothing, effort making armour that affects the way you feel about losing your character and therefore makes you pissy when some random bod kills you for nothing other than fun…don’t have a problem dying by getting caught in the night by monsters, or even players accidentally mistaking me for someone they’re trying to job for a reason (for example), like I’ve done something stupid to upset them IC (perfectly possible for a kender).” Sam Rose

“Personally I think that dying IC is a big part of the game, and is what makes the game feel real, I myself am giving myself a massive pvp tag at some time in the near future by becoming a werewolf, because if my character dies, then I wasn’t trying hard enough to keep that character alive…” Deklan Howells

“In my opinion, PvP has its place, but there is no hard and fast answer to the ‘good or bad’ question. It will probably always happen, but is affected by two major aspects: firstly, the aims of the system (to generalise – family fest system or hardcore immersive) and secondly the motivations behind the PvP actions (i.e. are they IC or OOC). I’m not a big fan, although I’ve been involved in some in the past but it’s part of the game so not really avoidable.

All I have to say about mugging, with Jen and I having been mugged twice at the G (did we mention “Twass! – In 5 minutes – within 50yds of the gate!”), both the mugger and the ‘muggee’ need to be aware of the search rule. One of the times, I was searched for about 5 secs and asked “What have you got?”, so I said “nothing you can find!” and the mugger moved off. If I’m searched properly, then they’re welcome to what I’m carrying, otherwise…” Mark Bateman

Patching together a technicolour reality

multicoloured patchwork cloak lining in greens, browns, yellows, rusts...One of the very first worries any player is likely to face, whatever their gender, is “what should I wear?” Costume is perhaps not the most important part of entering into the LARP world, but it does play a significant role. In this post, I thought I would share the story of one of my earliest costume creations for a LARP character, the emotions and the practicalities that surrounded that item, and how I think such items are important symbolic artefacts in the reality of the game.

Keeping Dry

Starting my experience of LARP as I did in the north-west UK, the unpredictable nature of the British weather played a large part in my experience of the game. LARP was fun, but it was also interspersed with clammy goosebumps and shivering, which (if you’ll pardon the pun) put rather a dampener on things. My early experiences of ‘fest’ LARP also made me keenly aware of the large proportion of the time that was not running screaming into battle, but instead standing around in the drizzle, huddling together with other players over a small campfire and passing a small hipflask around to keep warm. Cloaks were available for sale, but they tended to be very pricey, and I was on a student budget. Someone at university made blanket cloaks (rectangular woollen things with a clasp), which were better than nothing but didn’t quite keep the rain out or the warmth in. Most importantly, they didn’t convey the dramatic swirling atmosphere of highwayman-come-fantasy romance that the game seemed to aspire to.

Taking all of the above into consideration, and having acquired a budget sewing machine, I began to hatch my plans. Cloaks require a lot of fabric, and wool was expensive. I thought about how I had seen people playing wood-elves in leaf-patterned leather armour, and how I intended my next character to be a mildly aggressive wood-fairy, inspired by woodland, thorns and branches. I wanted something that reflected forest colours in all seasons but which could be used in different situations to blend in as well as to stand out. With that in mind I decided to make a reversible patchwork cloak. I would be able to use scraps to assemble the quantity of fabric required as well as to get the “dappled woodland” feeling I wanted. The gap between the patchwork and cover layer would create an insulating barrier and thus the cloak would be warm even if made from synthetic fabrics.

I bought a pattern, and made free with the sample section of a local curtain shop. I also kept an eye out for bargains in the offcut bin, and bought a large amount of green suede-like fabric for the backing. At a tiny tea-table I sewed square after square together into long strips, then sewed these to each other until I could barely see. I toiled like this for three days, barely eating or sleeping, then trimmed the fabric to the pattern shapes on an ironing board. The more I worked on the fabric, the more I thought about the character. My frustration at a broken machine needle became yet another obstacle in my way to the character’s goals, and why she had left the forest to meet the other players in the game. The fusing of the pattern pieces was fundamentally part of developing the story I intended to play, since as the patches came together, so did the personality of the fictional role.

After the frenzy of stitching, the cloak had to be washed, rinsed in waterproofing solution and dried. Waterproofing solution has a particular waxy scent to it, a scent that to this day I associate with adopting the belligerence and stubborn prejudices of that character. When a close friend of mine became tainted in the game world I refused to associate with her during game time for around three years. We are, of course, still marvellous friends the rest of the time.

Getting kitted up

The cloak, once made, was (and still is) enormous. It would not conveniently fit inside my rucksack, but instead had to be rolled and strapped to the outside of the bag, exposed to the elements. Once arrived at the event in the game world I found that the cloak, although successful at keeping the rain off and some warmth in, was so long as to make standing up once having sat down a perilous process. Other players/characters often stood on the hem and accidentally pinned me to the spot. I feel that this difficulty only encouraged my stubborn nature as the character.    The only way to go into combat elements of the game was to throw the garment over my head and hope to return to it later. I did begin to adopt a rather particular attitude towards objects as a result of this, trusting an item only for as long as it was within my grasp, for who knew what purpose another would find for it? Other player characters held strong views against the written word because of the way it could be twisted when taken away from its originator, and my character fell in line with this argument. My interactions with other players, rather than encouraging segregation due to my performed stand-offish personality, actually encouraged development of the fictional community, establishing a different group morality that was distinct from other types of character. However, it was still an easy task to cast off the persona at meal times along with the cloak, transforming it into a warm wrap or picnic blanket on which to chat and socialise with friends from all parts of the game around a hot drink and bread roll.

Reflections

My intentions in constructing this piece of costume were based on many requirements, but I was determined to create something specific to the identity and presentation of the character I would be playing. Although many parts of the cloak were scavenged from materials aimed at a mass market (in curtains), the outcome was in many ways unique, and the experience of producing the cloak distinctly coloured the wearing of it and behaviour while doing so. Making this item was only the beginning in my own journey of making various costumes for characters, as well as dressmaking more generally, and I have found this causes me to look at items of clothing for sale in a very different light. It is nearly impossible to purchase clothing that fits personal requirements of taste as well as practicality and uniqueness in everyday commercial settings, unless custom made. What effect does that have on my ‘performance’ of identity, or of my character (in the non-LARP sense) in the everyday? Does the limited range of options make it easier to identify those in the same social grouping as myself? Are we all likely to share the same frustrations with  ‘disposable’ mass produced fashion? And do the ‘unique’ items of clothing we adopt declare us idols and/or outcasts by default?

Reflections and comments welcome as always.