Alternative uses of roleplaying games

It is not a new thing to recognise that the impact of games, or of leisure activity, goes beyond a superficial understanding of entertainment. Competitive sports have been used as training exercises, frameworks for peaceful interaction and even to distract a population from starvation and riot. We know that there is value to be found in the playing of games. It is interesting, then, considering how in UK culture RPGs are generally denigrated and ridiculed, to see how often such games are used for ‘serious’ reasons.
A few weeks ago, I met with the documentary makers of Treasure Trapped to do an interview about LARP and I was asked to comment on the broader use of LARP as a training tool. It will come as no surprise to the LARPers who read this blog that ‘doing it for the experience’ can encompass more than even serious gaming. Lizzie Stark has discussed the use of LARP as a military training exercise in Leaving Mundania, and equally the Nordic LARP scene is well known for it’s serious treatment of realistic scenarios for personal development.
Today, on twitter, I saw someone post a link to the following website, which presents the visitor with a ‘make-your-own-adventure’ style written RPG. Depression Quest is an attempt to raise awareness about depression through the empathy (and possibly pleasure or frustration) people playing the game will experience. The goals of the developers in this case are not necessarily that the player will have a ‘good time’, but that they will have an ‘experience’. One of the main distinguishing features between a written RPG scenario and a live-action event is that in the latter the experience is more dynamic and unpredictable. But more broadly, then, this got me to thinking about the differences between ‘roleplay’ as a game, and ‘simulation training’. LARP may well be taken seriously by few people outside of the LARP community in the UK, but even for those of us who play in LARP games, it is not ‘serious’. The experience is not focussed on a particular outcome with real-world ramifications. Rather, that experience has different meaning for different players based on their engagement with the game. Fundamentally, LARP games are collaborative rather than ‘directed’ in the way that a training exercise might be. So I played through the above game (Depression Quest), and although it aims at promoting empathy, it is a puzzle. The objective is to try to get your character through the scenario and on the road to recovery. Your progress is monitored by criteria listed at the bottom of every page. Objectives in LARP are often not clear, or are negotiable (after all, you could always give in and join the zombie hordes). Perhaps this is where the difference between ‘leisure’ and ‘training tool’ lies.

To be continued….

Comments welcome

What’s that coming over the hill?

…is it a monster?

Most LARP activities rely upon a crew of volunteers to run, often known as ‘crew’ or ‘monsters’. These volunteers may help with anything from digging holes, to acting out the roles of ‘bad guys’, refereeing game regulations or providing first aid assistance. They are usually rewarded in some way for their time and involvement, either through in-game benefits, or out of game considerations such as free food, indoor accommodations and the like.

Such a description does not really ‘fit’ the idea many people might have of a monster, or a monstrous agent. Quite the opposite. In the above illustration monsters seem to be quite helpful, self-sacrificing creatures; more beauty than beast. I thought in this post it might be interesting to highlight both the function played by ‘monsters’ in LARP, and a broader reflection on how monstrous they seem in general. To be more specific in the use of the term, although volunteering to monster, or ‘going monstering’ may refer to undertaking any assistant backstage task to facilitate the game on behalf of the organisers, in the majority of cases it refers to performing a costumed acting role according to a specified ‘monster brief’. A brief comprises a rough guideline from which the volunteer may improvise an appropriate script of dialogue or behaviour.

Igor, the servant of the god-like master

Where a player in a LARP game may have full control of their actions and dialogue, subject to the restrictions of their embodied capabilities, monsters can be understood as lesser people, subject to the whims of the organiser or referee. Some monster roles may involve representing ‘cannon fodder’ such as weak little goblins or gretchen tasked with inconveniencing players, who are obliged to slaughter the beasts and reaffirm their status as heroic figures (this is the LARP equivalent of removing a household spider from the bathtub). There is little opportunity, in such roles, for the monster to act autonomously or to sway the course of events.

Even in more developed monster roles, such as reoccurring appearances of ‘evil masterminds’ or knowledgeable figures to interact with players, the detail of the brief and the abilities associated with the role lie firmly in the hands of the organisers. Monsters, then, are in this sense the serfs of the fantastical performances constituting LARP events, with organisers and plot writers their masters. As creatures without free will they are not fully human, but stunted individuals subject to their Machiavellian overlords. In a sense, they are pitiable monsters, unable to reach the status of a fully autonomous player.

The mercenary, the gunslinger, the barbarian outsider.

Such a depiction of monstering is one many players would likely reject, as it is not entirely accurate and it is slightly derogatory. Like any labour, monstering is often a process with tangible and intangible rewards. To paint a picture of monster volunteers as shackled servants would be the same as stating that the ticket sales clerk at the cinema, or the teenager in the House Griffindor costume at a Harry Potter attraction is in some way ‘monstrous’. While Karl Marx would likely take such a view, it is perhaps worth exploring the potential rewards of monstering more thoroughly.

In most games that require significant numbers of monsters, a select crew of volunteers will be recruited for the whole period of the event. As well as the potential enjoyment offered in the guise of successful role performances, social camaraderie and broader exploration of the fantastical world experienced through the ‘bad guys’ perspective, monsters are also often provided with free food and/or board. In persistent game worlds, monstering may likely confer benefits on the volunteer’s player experience, through transferable advantages or items which have a particular effect in the game. These are often tailored to the volunteer’s preferences by way of a token exchange system, so those playing fighting characters might ‘buy’ a special weapon, while knowledge based characters might ‘buy’ access to libraries of information on languages or herbs.

Although in theory monsters might be paid in ‘real’ coin for their time, I have never encountered this or heard of it in the UK LARP context. The closest such exchange I have ever come across has been through payment ‘in kind’ in the form of monsters being offered the ability to keep game costumes or props for personal use, or discounts on such items from affiliated traders. However, there are distinctly intangible benefits accrued through regular monstering. Experienced monsters gain expertise in many aspects of the game such as the rule mechanics, the makeup and costume presentation of particular monster types, and in the improvised portrayal of diverse and sometimes complex roles. In each of these areas such stalwarts acquire a level of kudos or respect from the community, and are often consulted on difficult situations or recruited to show new volunteers ‘the ropes’. Such veterans are often identifiable by their extensive repertoire of stories or accounts of earlier experiences which often figure them in a significant (and at times even maverick) role. It is this social approval of the volunteering role that perhaps lifts the ‘monster’ from wage-slave to contributing citizen. However, as I once discovered, rejecting some form of payment is considered unacceptable, as such behaviour impunes the status of monsters as a whole as no more than the Igors described above. As much as such community members may be applauded, monsters must remain outsiders, secondary and parasitic agents.

The invisible man, the terrifying unknown

The function of monster roles in LARP is to introduce or advance moments of dramatic tension as part of the narrative encountered by players. However,
when they appear in the game, it may not always be apparent that they are a ‘monster’. Some games make frequent use of ‘planted’ characters under the control of the organisers, either to add drama to the game or simply to add colour and assist with creating a particular ambiance. Although referees and ‘backstage’ crew are frequently easy to spot by specific markers that denote them as outside the game world (high-visibility jackets, specific costumes or coloured markers are often used), many in-game monsters are carefully costumed to be indistinguishable from a player character. Although in many circumstances players within the game can identify monsters by their lower costume standards, or by recognising the volunteer as someone they can identify as associated with a different character, conspicuous by their absence, monsters which are concealed as players or simply well-costumed and prepared can pose an ‘invisible’ threat.

A key aspect of this lies in the function and status of a monster. These ‘monsters’ are dressed as players, in the same space as players, indistinguishable from them, yet their intentions are unknown, and may be threatening. These ‘double agents’ may be less attached to their roles than players, and as they are under the control or direction of the organisers their motivations are unpredictable. Should a monster ‘die’, they are likely to still fulfil their function by adding to the drama of the game, yet for such an occurrence to befall a player undermines their position as key agents or ‘heroes’ in the narrative drama. Monsters are in this sense a threatening ‘other’, different from players and yet seemingly the same. As chimera, in this sense monsters truly are monstrous since they illustrate the arbitrary distinction drawn between player and game-world. At the same time as monsters heighten and draw attention to that boundary, their task is to artfully conceal it from players; to promote a sense of ‘reality’ in the construction of the fantasy.

To be a monster at LARP is something of a double-edged experience. The very existence of monsters, as of the back-stage crew in general, is to perpetuate the dominant fictional narrative. Yet in the liminal space they occupy, the in-between world that separates the fantastical construction from the mundane one, monsters perhaps highlight the fragility of both those worlds.

LARP is not theatre nor psychodrama! And I am not Spock.

This post has been two weeks in the making. I couldn’t bring myself to upload it last week because it seemed to me to be on matters so controversial to the UK LARP community. However, following quiet and ‘ladylike’ discussion of the issue with a friend over tea this weekend I thought it had better be aired after all.

Leonard Nemoy famously wrote two autobiographies; I am not Spock (1975), followed by I am Spock (1995). In both books, Nemoy discussed his relation to the character he famously portrayed on tv and film. Apparently many Star Trek fans took exception to the first book, not having read it, at such a rejection of the character by the actor. Such issues of identity between character and player are often an outsider’s view of LARP. Also, I have previously compared LARP to pantomime, art installation, and personal development exercises without clarifying the extent of that relation.

This post is a struggle over the ‘outsider’ view of LARP as theatre or psychodrama (including identity struggle) rejected by many UK LARPers, compared with the reality of such themes emerging in many events. The existence of particular types of European LARP which encourage the hobby as a means of self development or political commentary are themselves akin to art installation or public theatre. Also, there are ‘thin’ types of LARP which are familiar outside the community as a type of  theatre; murder mystery evenings or themed restaurant experiences which demonstrate a more passive or superficial engagement than most LARPs. The majority of UK LARP events I have attended would strongly publicly deny any affiliation with this ‘sort of thing’, yet would also, within the community, admit to the potential LARP offers to provide it for those who wish to explore other aspects of their identity or find joy in the presentation of a conventional narrative scene. In some few respects this struggle seems rather similar to the one Leonard Nimoy faced, not only is it a personal struggle, but there is a large community of people who may misinterpret the headline.

So, LARP is about having fun, the sort of fun grown-up people are not supposed to be allowed to have unless its something morally dubious such as sex, drugs, alcohol and chocolate cake. Added to that, ‘wholesome’ fun is really considered quite unfashionable. So my previous comments in the posts Introduction to LARP and What is normal? do highlight the fact that yes, on occasion the ‘sinful’ elements do make an appearance. Especially the cake. Perhaps we should admit that yes, LARP is indeed a bit silly, childish even. Why is that disallowed among adults? Perhaps the underlying concern comes from the idea that children’s play is practice, for an unforgiving world, undertaken in a forgiving fantastical one. Our role as adults lies in putting that utopia in the past and instead attempting to forge a new one rather than escape to the old.

To all intents and purposes LARP does offer an escape. An escape from self, from structures of everyday life, from work or family and from social demands. It is perhaps a retreat from a world in which individuals feel they have no impact into one where they may change the narrative of history. Yet simultaneously what all LARPers know and few outsiders realise, is that such an escape is illusion. The best that can be hoped for, as in any hobby, is to experience ‘flow’: being-in-the-moment. Participation in LARP is dependent on having holiday from work, finding a babysitter, raising the spare cash for the entry fee. It is impossible to leave the cares of the world behind, or to experience a social environment with morals and rules dramatically different to our own (more of this in later posts). It is also near impossible to explore and perform a character role that does not draw upon the knowledge, experience and personality traits of the player. Everything that surrounds a LARP event continues for players within it. LARP could not exist if it were not for the rest of our economic and social lives. In this sense, LARP is an activity which exists in a parasitical relationship to our everyday ‘mundania’. Yet we gain additional benefits from it above the ‘escape’, benefits often attributed to psychological development or engagement with the arts.

LARP is fun, escapism, theatre and psychodrama. LARP is LARP.

And Leonard Nemoy is and always will be Spock. Live long and prosper.

Death (in LARP)

It may seem strange to non-LARPers that the death of a character in a game can be extremely emotionally affecting. As an entertainment, a friend of mine once ran a one-evening horror LARP two nights in a row, one evening attended by regular LARPers, and another evening by interested work colleagues. The event was in some respects inspired by the murder mystery genre, and there came a point when the players discovered a body hidden in an attic. The LARPers responded with extreme performances of distaste and shock, while the non-LARPers made some indicative remarks over how unfortunate it was and quickly set to ghoulishly examining the body for clues. When some of their own party were in turn murdered, the distinction between the two groups’ behaviour remained evident.

In such a short timespan, it is hardly to be expected that either group would develop a genuinely strong connection to their character. Equally, the non-LARPer contingent in this case were less involved in the initial development of their character’s history and background. Furthermore, these characters were played for no more than an evening. In fantasy LARP, however, some players perform the same characters for over a decade. Even more than actors in a long running West End/ Broadway production, these performers become closely entwined with their performed alter ego. The ‘part’ is written by them, for them. They costume the character, develop their history, respond independently to life events. And if actors feel a sense of loss at the end of a long run of performances, LARPers too may have an emotional response to an end where the character can no longer be played.

There are of course in-character responses to death which are separate to the out- of-character response to the loss of a character. As I am considering character death generally I am not going to discuss the IC responses, although they are varied and interesting in their own right, particularly in the relation IC responses have to OC responses (see previous post on Immersion versus PvP). Last week I attended an academic workshop on death and loss which made me realise there might be correlations between the tangible experiences of losing a character, and how it could compare (albeit in a ‘thin’ way) to the loss of a loved one.

What comprises ‘death’ in LARP?

In the majority of different LARP systems there is an established mechanism for ‘death’. Under particular circumstances, the character enters a liminal condition which requires intervention from other players to preserve their ‘life’. The character may have limited or no participation in this process (for example, they may be ‘unconscious’ or they may be able to demand help). Without this intervention, the character will ‘die’ and the player loses all claim or control of that narrative and performance (there are some few exceptions, as when the organisers might find it useful to transform the ‘dead’ character into a threatening zombie or guardian spirit, but the discretion lies with the organisers and no longer wholly with the player).

Fear of death

While characters may have a particular attitude to death appropriate to the culture and setting of the game, players are likely to have a healthy reserve about the death of their character from the offset. On a basic level, to die is for the game to end, to ‘lose’ in some form. If the player is competing on systemic advancement of the character with other players, death eliminates all acquired advantages. If the player’s intent is to engage in the game on a narrative basis, then the narrative is completed or cut short dependant upon the circumstances of the death. All developed ties to other characters cannot continue with the player in a new identity, even if they re-enter the same game, therefore there is something of a ‘social death’ experience. Finally, costume and props which may represent significant investment of time and money can also become unusable or have limited applicability in the next role.

Each of these aspects is something that a player may justifiably ‘fear’; yet does this constitute a fear of ‘death’ or is that instead a matter of a transfer of emotion from performed to embodied self? This touches upon a difficult area. While the Scandinavian model of LARP may encourage the pursuit of ‘bleed’ and emotional transfer between player and character, this is not widely held to be the case in Britain. Instead, the performance of emotion is applauded, but any inability to maintain the distinction between self and character is an infringement of a fundamentally cherished principle of the game.

Recalling several near-death and death experiences of my own in LARP, one aspect which does seem to strike home is the narrative aspect regarding being ‘ready’ for death. I have experienced some deaths which I felt were ‘good’ in that they fit with the narrative I was attempting to portray, and others which were troubling in the sense that they were unexpected, or followed periods of uncertainty. In every case I have felt a little upset, often proportional to the length of time I invested in the character; however I do not expect that my experiences reflect those of everyone. I may discuss these instances further in relation to social connections and the role of momentos in a later post.

Ignorant of the rules – avoiding death

One of the most controversial issues in LARP surrounds the administrative process of death and its associated loopholes. In one large well known LARP system, characters are marked as dead by cutting the player’s laminated card in half with scissors. This can only be done by a referee. In other systems players must self-declare as dead, a type of altruistic suicide which preserves the integrity of the rules system. In the minority of games I have experienced, the referees or game organisers take whole responsibility for the character’s lifespan, and will inform the player of their status accordingly. Each and every system of this type works on a basic set of principles (the rules system), and upon trust among the players and the organisers. However, there are instances where that trust is infringed or broken, through ignorance or arrogance. I confess to making mistakes of ignorance myself, although I was lucky enough to have a referee on hand at the time to correct me. My short term memory is particularly poor and I have a tendency to miss things in the heat of the moment. However, when players specifically set out to ‘cheat’ death, this suggests that it is indeed something to fear. That such circumstances do exist lends some support to the idea that perhaps death in LARP does have some significance for players that is more than the sum of its inconveniences listed above.

Finally, the distinctive scenario of a game populated by LARPers and one populated by non-LARPers demonstrated one distinctive difference. Those who were not used to playing this sort of game, in concentrating on the puzzle solving element, were inclined to ‘forget’ their responses to wounds and the death of other characters after a few moments. They focussed on ensuring the solution was found to the outlandish scenario they found themselves in. The LARPers familiar with the format instead seemed to revel in the emotive responses which frustrated their overall aims, struggling on despite their ‘psychological’ and ‘physical’ limitations. I do not know which group had more fun.

Comments welcome as always.

LARP Sights and Sites

I was talking with a colleague today about how people tend to paint the countryside as an idyllic fantasy land and it seems that in LARP we don’t just do that, we try to make it a reality. And importantly I think we tend to be more successful in doing so than Disneyland (which my father once said was the name of an engine room on board a ship he was on; this disney wurk, that disney wurk, and yon twiddly thing over there, well it disney wurk eether). All bad jokes aside though, there is always the search for a ‘perfect’ site.

What makes a perfect site for LARP? Often I think it is about versatility; what can the place be ‘dressed up’ to represent? How many places can we stage a ‘safe’ fighting area while also changing it enough to keep it interesting? How conveniently can the ‘behind the scenes’ work of costume, makeup, catering and game management be concealed while also being close enough to ‘the action’ to be responsive? The agenda of the game organisers is to ‘use’ the geography of the countryside to produce an ‘immersive’ environment (see previous post), but this dream of fraught wilderness, sophisticated country mansion or remote planet is just as idyllic as the arcadian vision of the beautiful peaceful countryside untouched by man (the very dream many other visitors to the same sites are often pursuing). Let’s look at the pattern of a ‘usual’ event…
Friday afternoon: the event organisers arrive, with weeks if not months of pre-prepared props and set dressing to transform the site into a fantastical environment. As hangings and fake blood, mysterious twigs, eerie wind chimes and hidden lights are placed in position, toilet rolls and soap are fully stocked along with huge amounts of tea and coffee. Tents are erected or sleeping bags unrolled on bunks. Doors are checked and unlocked and last minute supplies are scrambled for, sometimes with the assistance of the site owner or management. The area is walked, evaluated, claimed as usable or unusable for the purposes of the game. Perhaps the ground is too waterlogged, or riddled with badger holes. Bracken may have overgrown the paths. Areas identified as ideal locations for ‘key’ scenes or hiding points are found to house chickens or sheep. Worse still, it may transpire that public paths or farm tracks are well used by local people. Arrival paperwork is put in place and walkie talkies charged.

Friday Evening: Players of the game arrive in vehicles, with their own camping equipment ranging from authentic medieval cooking tents to state of the art mountaineering boots. New players discover the difficulties of setting a camp and turn to the more experienced for assistance, who reprimand them for their lack of planning for an outdoor setting. Tales are told of players who in extreme weather simply accepted the challenge of nature and survived without the comforts of home. Cars get stuck in muddy verges or sandy bowls and people rush hither and thither to don their costumes, in the process taking on their character roles. After a discussion and reminder of the rules and the limitations of the site (clear your rubbish, don’t park there, mind the ground-nesting birds, don’t leave the designated area), the game begins. The rush of the players calms to an engagement with a calm and fictitious world while the organisers place crew members in position. As the excitement builds and the players move from one location to the next, the crew try to remain one step ahead of them, coordinating in fevered whispers over hand held radios in an unknown pitch blackness. Scrambling in the dark raises tension to a height and after the game concludes for the evening, players and organisers alike settle to a companionable drink, drawing the tent doors to shut out the cold night air or gathering by a bonfire of destroyed transportation pallets.

Saturday: As all on site awake to the unfamiliar noises of the lark, the rooster, the donkey braying in a nearby field (or was it the chap snoring three tents down?), the lack of the ‘ordinary’ adds to the sense of adventure. Whether the rooster was mistaken for dedicated crew creating mysterious noises as part of the game, or the cold showers simply highlight what is often taken for granted in presenting one’s ‘face’ to the world, the discrepancy between the wild and the civilised is clear. All the ordinary rules may well be broken, but they are replaced by new ones. The remainder of the day continues much as the previous. In the evening, a lycean spirit takes hold of many, and  the drinking often reaches a different pitch (as do some individual’s singing voices), to set the birds aflight.

Sunday: As the unfamiliarity of Saturday begins to resemble a pattern, the game winds to a close. The tents are packed, the props boxed away and loaded into the vehicles, and some compare their experience of the weekend happily before they stream away towards Birmingham, London, Portsmouth, Cardiff, Glasgow, Dublin. Some find it difficult to leave this community so recently forged, and linger among the waste and forgotten scarves as the organisers and volunteers clean the site buildings and pack away their own things. Eventually, time and tide may not wait and even the M5 cannot be put off forever; the site is left behind in the hands of its caretakers once more.

Well, I didn’t promise an objective account. What continues to interest me here is how the countryside LARP site is used to host events, interpreted in a particular way which is sensitive only to the needs of the game, and while players and organisers alike wish to ‘escape’ the modern world, the city, to a fantastical realm, it is very much on their own terms. While the requirements of the locals and site owner/manager might be respected, the countryside is not visited on its own terms, but only through a lens of usefulness. Yet it remains the ideal retreat; it is just that ‘ideal’ is understood a little differently.

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.

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…