Monstering: changes in the air

It has been a really long time now since I attended a fantasy LARP. Well over a year, and unfortunately my work and personal commitments this year make the outlook bleak. I missed much of last year due to personal and wedding plans,  and subsequently I’m a bit out of the loop on what is going on in our ‘finely woven webs of magic and belief’! I hope to attend 2-3 events later in the summer though, so hopefully we will have fabulous LARPing weather!

So this rather explains why the blog has remained in stasis for so long, but there are new entries to come! In this entry in particular, I have recently noticed that this year seems to be shaping up to be the year of controversy over monstering. So, for the non-LARPers out there, monstering is basically being the helpers, crew or bad guys in any given event (see my previous post). Monsters traditionally participate in events for free, and recieve small benefits in return: this is where controversy is emerging, as some events are beginning to request small fees from monsters to secure a place, or promising bigger rewards. There are always concerns for organizers about monsters, for several reasons;

1) monsters are a cost

Most sites have a per-person charge, or a scale of charges based on occupancy, so the price of tickets for players will always be directly or indirectly affected by the size of the monster crew. Even for the rare event which is being held on an open site, public liability insurance charges also scale on a per-person basis (usually at 50 participants, 100 participants, >150 participants basis though this varies). Keeping costs for players low therefore will always rely on having an effective and appropriately sized monster crew.

2) monsters are needed

A good quality event relies on good monsters who are experienced, informed and enthusiastic. Including organizers in the category of ‘crew’ here, it is simply impossible to have an event without them. It is also true, however, that player expectations in fantasy LARP are seen to demand fewer low-activity events where little effect can be made on the world, and more open-world events where players have free choice to engage in different aspects of the plot or storyline. These type of games require more props, bigger sites, and more monsters.

3) are monsters motivated?

Following the above very significant points, most participants (whether players or monsters) know that enthusiasm and contribution to the event can weigh much more than money. An eager monster who finds some great costume in a drawer and brings it along, a group of friends who come along as a group and can work well together to portray a military unit or even someone who gets enthusiastically stuck in to whatever job needs doing (even making the tea!) is an incredible contribution to the success of any event. Motivated monster crews are also important to increasing player numbers, because many people get their first introduction to LARP through monstering an event.  Yet this is a completely unpredictable element, which may rely fundamentally on any variety of possible causes, so may be nerve-racking for the organizers! There are little things that organizers try to do to improve motivation, including providing tea, coffee and sweeties, priority bunks, experience for your player character or other incentives, but these often include costs which need to be outweighed by the benefits. And there is always the danger that these incentives might drift into ‘payment’, resembling the feeling of work (see below).


So that explains why organizers might have to deal with conflicting ideas about what monsters should be expected to give or pay, and how much/whether they should be rewarded. Yet there also seems to be a problem for monsters around obligation and enjoyment which overlaps between the hobby and other commitments.

4) How much does it cost?

People volunteering to monster an event may well participate for ‘free’ but may have to pay associated costs of transport, catering, accommodation and equipment. These are the same costs that might be a part of playing the game, but with no guaranteed level or type of enjoyable participation in the game, and less leeway to ‘make your own fun’ these costs may seem more significant.

5) Am I having fun? (is this like work)

As a player, it’s easy to choose your own preferred style of play. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed playing very minor monsters; the squishy one-hit-goblin type who is destined to lose (as monsters are, unlike some amazing one-hit super-goblin players with magic swords I could mention). However if you prefer a competitive playing style, taking on roles where you have no chance of winning is not going to be particularly enjoyable. In addition, many of the other tasks that might be necessary as a crew member can be draining and mundane; too much like hard work rather than fun. Even an unlimited supply of sugar and caffeine can sometimes be a poor substitute for enjoyment.

6) Do I have to be here?

As paper bookings gave way to email and online forums have become wider through social media such as facebook, there is in some ways a stronger sense of a LARP community. But in some places this seems to put a serious (stated or implied) obligation on regular players to participate as monster crew or risk losing their hobby altogether. There is an equally strong tendency to report on events as they happen, emphasising what is sometimes termed FOMO (fear of missing out). Also, a wider reach of advertising about events puts more pressure on players and monsters to attend more events, and increases demand for experienced monster crew (including referees and organizers). This presents monstering as a more serious obligation, as a necessary way to maintain the community, adding a level of pressure which may simply override a decision to participate on other grounds.

These pressures on monsters and event organisers are hardly new. In addition, there have been a number of events in the past which have been so popular to monsters and players alike that these grievances have been shown to be insubstantial. But in the circumstances of rising site costs, rising transport costs, dropping player numbers and more significant ‘real-life’ demands, these problems seem to be getting squeezed from both sides.  Of course, this is only a rough summary of debates I have seen elsewhere and I am only adding a little information drawn from wider debates around conditions of economic life in the UK to spice up the discussion.

What has your experience been? As a monster or organizer what is your best experience of an event? Or the worst?

Comments especially welcome to this post!



Shared Fantasy: Live-action versus technologically mediated hyper-reality

Hello world. It has been some time since I had the leisure to post. But now I have a wordpress app! It’s the future. Jetpacks. Robot servants. A life of opportunity. Utopia or dystopia?

The fictional stories I read in the 1980s promised technological wonders such as these, and none so wondrous as the idea of virtual reality. Whether you remember the headsets of the 90’s or the holodeck from Star Trek, the notion of advanced technology blurring the line between what was ‘real’ and what could be experienced as real was a topic of much excitement and possibility. Of course, so was teleportation, but this post isn’t about that.
What I have been thinking about is the distinction between ‘swords and sorcery’ style LARP and the recent popularity of ‘augmented reality’ games made possible by the popularity of technologies like the iPad or smartphone. These games need such technology to create a consistent game world in a way that messing about in a field with some foam swords does not. Yet even foam swords and costumes are products of technology, artifacts that ‘mediate’ our engagement with our imagined world.
So I wonder about the role such objects play in our ‘pretend’ world compared with the ‘real’ one. Food for thought… (To be continued….!)

Praying at the shrine of Loo

aka no I won’t pee in a bush.

Firstly, apologies to regular readers (all five, six of you?). I’ve not been blogging recently because I have been writing up my previous blog post about monsters for an academic conference in Manchester. I am also working on another academic paper at the moment and it seems that all the writing juice has just been squeezed out of me. On second thoughts, bad metaphor there considering the subtitle. But I’ve been inspired to go back to this post by recent comments around gender and sexism in LARP. This post considers how far it is acceptable to go in LARP events when trying to promote immersion in the game. As a player, referee and organiser this is something I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about. Specifically regarding bathroom breaks.

Now I’ll come back to bathroom breaks in a moment. But first, I want to say a few words about sexism in LARP. Now I think that sexism in LARP is not as big a problem as it might sometimes seem, or as is sometimes reported. Many men and women play and enjoy LARP, and if there are fewer women who play outdoor fantasy LARP compared to men, well I think that says more about our social norms around gender and the limitations of campsites than anything else. In my experience of players who have no family commitments, and where events are predominantly situated indoors such as in Cthulhu LARP, there is no clear gender divide in participation. Now what is interesting in settings such as Cthulhu LARP is that as a historically situated game, players often have a lot of fun acting out and challenging the gender norms of the time in a crisis situation. I expect that in games inspired by Jane Austen’s novels players experience the same. However, in playing these games we create a hybrid gender-reality of sorts; a space where despite the conventions of the setting, the values and attitudes of the ‘real world’ we live in tend to come through.

So when addressing issues of gender inequality in LARP, we have to think about how the genre presents gender stereotypes, and how our contemporary society presents gender stereotypes. The game presents a creative space where norms can be challenged and overturned. And lets face it, sometimes its fun to play the damsel in distress, to be the dumb blonde who might cause everyone else in the game to be captured and eaten because they are forced to either abandon the lady (and look like a cowardly character), or otherwise break with the norms of the game genre by allowing the ‘mere girl’ to be the sacrificial hero. So these roles have a sort of power to them which can still be exercised – it just might be quite risky to the character to do so. The fact of LARP is that it is transient, and unlikely to offer an ongoing solution to gender inequality. What tends to get people upset seems to be when the inequalities of the ‘real world’ are brought into the game as if to a ‘natural’ habitat, or when players struggle to accept the differring inequalities presented by the LARP setting.

So to look at a similar example; one of the things our contemporary society has a lot of etiquette around is bathroom breaks. Or, to be more specific, going for a pee. As a woman, I’m not entirely up to speed on gentlemen’s etiquette regarding relieving yourself, but certainly in the fantasy genre, a bush would usually do. Also, considering what I have heard about which urinal men choose to use, I presume if you came across someone else using the bushes, you would have to move a few bushes further down. Stabbing someone with your sword and using their bush may be all very well in the Conan canon, but it just wouldn’t be right in a contemporary LARP. You’d get pee on your sword, for starters. So in the vague in-between space that is part game and part something else, we’ve made a compromise. Ladies, it is said, often go to the bathroom in pairs. But in fantasy novels and movies, they never seem to go at all. It just isn’t ladylike. Bathing, on the other hand, is very ladylike, and there are often many frissons experienced by the characters in books and legends over the challenges of preserving modesty. Now, these genre specific tropes don’t fit very well with contemporary needs. First of all, however immersive and appropriate to the setting and character it might be, I will not pee in a bush. My costume is difficult enough to manage in a portaloo. Secondly, I won’t be bathing in a stream either. Not with Britain’s weather conditions, anyway. Sadly, I don’t have the benefit of a lifetime’s hardship on the tundra my character might have. Luckily, most of the women I know who LARP broadly take the same view, and don’t take such ideas seriously.

Unfortunately, solutions to these particular difficulties often require resolution out of character, in another area or by temporarily dropping out of the game. The maintenance of the game illusion, however, requires that these interruptions be kept to a minimum. They are directly in conflict with the pursuit of immersion.

Bathroom breaks can therefore become quite serious business. One incident which happened some years ago involved a large group of ladies in the playing area stranded some way away from the toilet block. At this point they would have to travel in character across hostile enemy territory or drop out of game in full view of the other players. A sudden feeling of piety saved the day, as the ladies agreed that it was of utmost importance they pay their respects to a noted ancestor revered nearby. This ancestor was named ‘Loo’. In consequence, a large number of characters headed off together across this no-mans land, and in doing so married the demands of immersion with everyday etiquette.

So where does this address issues of sexism and inequality? Fundamentally there are several motifs common to the ‘romance’ of horror and fantasy genres which conflict with contemporary ideologies. For example, family and caste honour which claims ownership of special privileges is not compatible with freedom of individual expression and reward according to merit. Women were traditionally considered property under this feudal perspective, and even in fantasy it presents problems.

So what about ‘progressive’ LARP which incorporates equality into the very fabric of the setting? Well this too presents a struggle where players try to make sure their performance ‘fits’. Perhaps we could all pee on the same bush? I confess, personally I’d find that difficult. But then, perhaps there is still something of the message being put across in such LARP, as there is in presenting Shakespeare in contemporary costume. Although the purists hate it, it brings accessibility to the archaic language. Sometimes the medium and the message have to compromise. So feminist LARP utopia is some way off as yet.

Trying something new

So, this bank holiday weekend was spent in gruelling cold conditions attempting to represent a character from a gloriously sunny coastal port town on the edge of a great Mediterranean-esque plain of farms and vineyards. Needless to say, I grumbled both as my character and as myself. The return to the comforts of unfrozen pipes and hot food more or less on demand have been a reminder that however much I enjoy ‘playing at’ being in the dark ages, I’d rather live with first world comforts. It puts in perspective those at risk from fuel poverty and homelessness in today’s world.

So I suppose I should make this clear, this weekend was not ‘research’ and I do not have the permission of participants to report on it as such, so this post will be confined to my own experiences of a new LARP community and system. For those in the LARP community, it will be quite obvious which events I am referring to and there are already a number of detailed first-person accounts of this event online and easy to find.

So, the weekend was one of the coldest on record for this time of year, and some of my close friends at the event left early, unable to face the hardship of numb and painful extremities caused by freezing and below-freezing temperatures any longer. Having packed every single insulating rug and duvet in my possession and supplied with as much hot coffee as I could buy, I managed to last until the bitter end. My long-suffering partner diligently heated the ice to hot water each night so we could defrost our poor feet, and I think we were probably as well prepared as it was possible to be. Nonetheless, the cold did detract from my ability to keep to the game. The fact that the cold was escapable, that we could have given up and gone home, made it very hard to ignore.

Aside from the bodily challenges, showing up to a new game, with new people to interact with is always difficult. Explaining away unfamiliarity with the customs and practices of the countrymen (fellow players) camped alongside is a hurdle to be added to the many one might experience when trying a new game. In this instance, the game itself is new, so it wasn’t possible to rely on the community of existing knowledgeable players to cue you to what is and is not standard practice, no matter how much of the setting you might have read in advance.

Further, this was the first time I have purposefully played a character who avoids combat. Because of the cold and reports of poor ground in the combat area I also did not volunteer to engage in combat as a monster role, which I usually thoroughly enjoy. This left me in a strange position to discover those aspects of the game with which I could engage and contribute. Several of our group did join me in discovering various ways to keep warm that superficially engaged with the ethos of the group as a performance oriented culture. That is to say, we indulged in some silly dancing that mostly involved prancing about or jumping up and down to keep warm. But this glossed over the reality that we were too cold to take the game seriously.

Nonetheless, we did go out and do business. I negotiated on behalf of the group and got involved in the politics around business and trade. I went to meetings as a ‘priest’ and discussed the merits of business practices as moral or immoral (though this began to uncomfortably sound like university work). The politics around priests trying to influence business was something I really enjoyed actually, and I think if the cold had been less biting this part of the game could have really taken much more of my attention, as well as the role of ceremonies. The little phys-reps and metal coins seemingly more at home in a one-shot environment really made it feel like there was an urgent need to trade and swap things.

However, the cold and the site difficulties did make it feel like I was a visitor to someone else’s game, many organisers seemed preoccupied with other troubles and so left new people like myself to explore with little advice to guide them. The number of familiar faces, also strangers to this new game meant it was not wholly unwelcoming, but there was not the same feeling of community achievement in this ‘shared fantasy’, only a sense of a shared struggle.  However, it has definitely thrown elements into the game which I never expected in a ‘fest’ scale event, so I think I will visit it again in the future.

A more coherent follow-up post may appear when I have recovered more of my wits from the elements.

LARPwriting, the 25-step list…

Event organiser, LARP director, Entrepreneur, Logistics expert, Referee…being in charge of a LARP event makes you all of these things and more. Some groups attempt to separate the different roles of running a LARP event among a team of people but in many cases unless running a full-scale ‘fest’ system, one person will ‘wear many hats’. For the uninitiated these are some of the many tasks;

1. Register with a group to run an event using their rules system or design your own system and publicise it.

2. Survey and book a suitable site (scout camp, country house, self-catering cottage, municipal parkland…) for an appropriate date.

3. Purchase public liability insurance for your event.

4. Write an event plot which incorporates a scenario overview and planned ‘encounters’ to provoke crises, details any costume, props and makeup that will be required and outlines an approximate timeline of the narrative.

5. Write character details and background narrative for non-player characters of substance. Recruit volunteers to play these roles.

6. Book a caterer or plan catering for players and monsters/volunteers.

7. Create an advertisement or booking flyer. Advertise the event to potential players and  monsters/volunteers.

8. Write character outlines or request that these are submitted for review by players.

9. Take payments or deposits from players. Register monsters/volunteers and assign roles (including first aid or other roles as required by insurance policy).

10. Manufacture or purchase props, costume and makeup or special effects

11. Provide players and volunteers with all relevant and sufficient information they require prior to the event (including character information and OOC information such as directions or catering information).

12. Acquire radios or walkie-talkies if needed.

13. Arrange transportation of all relevant materials to the site.

14. Travel to the site to prepare the event. Walk over the site to ensure all locations can be used as planned for encounters. Make any last-minute changes or adjustments. Liaise with site manager and put up signposts to the event if required. Check all site facilities (e.g. bathrooms, lights) are functional. Check all props and equipment. Complete a risk assessment if required by insurance policy. Establish and set up any any set-piece areas. Mark out a control area or ‘monster room’. Direct caterers if required. Direct vehicles of volunteers and players as they arrive. Brief all volunteer crew and players.

15. Start the game…..

As may be clear from the above list, there are many tasks not directly involved in the ‘writing’ of an event. In fact, very few of the above tasks will even ensure that an event is ‘good’ or enjoyable for the players (and volunteers). If an event is poorly written, or if the caterers are not appropriately set up, or if all the players get lost trying to find the site….all of these things could result in a poor game before the game even begins. The tidy nature of the above list also conceals the chaos of organising many such events, when a site is re-landscaped or props are not transported to site on time, key NPCs are delayed by traffic and last-minute changes have to be made. Even these challenges seem quite orderly compared to the problem of trying to manage the budget or cash-flow of such an event. Many costs have to be paid up before the event is even advertised, and props can only be commissioned once money is available to pay for them. So the above list is really a misleading model of what might go into organising such an activity.

Any person or team running a LARP event may also face numerous challenges once the event begins. These might at first seem clear, but in so many cases the problem becomes remarkably complex;

16. Brief, make up and costume monsters, send out to ‘encounter’ the players according to the timeline.

17. Liase with caterers around timing of ‘crises’.

18. Adjudicate rules queries and provide players with information regarding IC enquiries.

19. Improvise additional encounters or set-pieces ‘on the fly’ to respond to player improvisation or to account for differences in the pace of the event.

20. Debrief monsters and NPCs to attempt to predict player actions.

21. Respond to any OOC problems with the site, catering or relevant crises.

22. Orchestrate the ‘finale’ of the event, or final encounter (this will often involve a larger scale written encounter with more significant props or special effects) to present a narrative ending – either by killing the player characters or through resolution of a final challenge.

23. End the game

24. Debrief players and volunteers.

25. Ensure all event materials are cleared up and site keys returned, any breakages noted and paid for. Collect all remaining consumables and props. Congratulate volunteers and players, then transport all materials off-site or to secure storage.

How hard can it be? Let’s take number 16. Do you have the person who wrote the narrative available to brief the monsters? Does everyone clearly understand the objective? Is the font size on the printout too hard to read in the approaching darkness of a crowded tent with few lanterns? Do you have time to brief the monsters after they are made-up or do you have to brief them during costume changes and make up being applied? Who is applying the make-up? Do they have the appropriate skills and expertise? Are the monsters allergic to latex prosthetics?

The devil, as they say, is in the detail. Many of the articles I have read about running LARP events seem to concentrate on the narrative and matters of pace in the game, ensuring appropriate levels of immersion and so on. Yet this ‘directorial’ focus seems to obscure the ‘backstage’ chaos and skill which goes into any LARP event. Some games notably employ a ‘meta’ level of discomfort to players in order to help with immersion, insisting they ‘survive’ on their own rations and ability to find a safe space to sleep, another character trustworthy to keep watch and so on. Yet not all games (or game organisers) are prepared to take this line. The notion of ‘bleed’, a beneficial crossover between IC and OOC experience, is a helpful one in understanding why organisers may wish to promote such activity, yet how often do we see Conan the barbarian visit the lavatory, or Sherlock Holmes tying his shoelaces? In some cases the narrative genre which inspires the LARP event encourages the game to eliminate various spaces and activities from the storyline. In our pursuit of immersion, we have to make decisions about what will be part of the game and what will be outside of it. This post, then, simply serves to highlight the hidden parts of organising a LARP which nonetheless have a huge impact on the game itself.

Usual disclaimers apply. YMMV. Comments welcome.

LARP imitates life Part 2 – Cultural Imperialism

New year, new LARP system.

Since some friends and I are involved in running events a lot of the time which often results in failing to get an opportunity to relax and play events, quite a few of us have decided to spend some time playing in a new system. Much of the holiday has therefore been spent discussing our plans for new characters, new costumes, how we will use the rules on character creation to generate appropriate skills for those characters, and how we want the group to ‘feel’.

Part of the difficulty surrounding these discussions has been focussed on the real-world cultural associations of the fantastical backgrounds presented by the new system. To date, most of my LARP experience has been in playing roles inspired by the 1920-50s English upper and middle classes, fantastical ‘others’ based on Celtic mythology, Welsh chambermaids, London jazz singers, and one instance of Celtic-sailor’s-daughter-raised-as-an-arabian-dancer (though no-one ever did comment on my pale skin-tone). In all of these experiences, although there have frequently been community discussions about ‘how Celtic are we?’ and ‘how Celtic were the Celts, actually?’ most of the group have been pretty comfortable that even though the fantasy setting mangles the myth in many ways, it is our own island heritage we have been toying with. In the new game world we intend to play, we will instead be adopting a culture which (although it has been very carefully designed) is predominantly inspired by Arabian, Persian and North African mythological traditions.

So is the step from fantastically-torturing-my-own-ethnic-heritage to fantastically-torturing-someone-else’s-ethnic-heritage such a big problem? And is it even genuinely someone else’s heritage if it’s a fantastical construct? There are several traditional rules in LARP, and notable for the associated forum community is rule 7: don’t take the piss. This rule invokes the collaborative nature of the game to stress that where the rules of the game leave some ambiguity, players should take care to embrace the ‘spirit’ of the game as conveyed by the organisers and the community as a whole. Such ‘spirit’ might be interpreted as a matter of culture, but in my experience of UK LARP it incorporates fair play, sensitivity to the contribution of other players (as well as organisers, crew or ‘monsters’) and an awareness of the limitations of the LARP form as a game which relies upon a combination of imagination, physical representations and embodied skills.

So the question which worries is to what extent ‘rule 7’ is compromised by adopting  practices or props which could be seen as racial or cultural stereotypes. In the development of their new game world, Profound Decisions‘ (PD) development team have made explicit attempts to steer around such tropes and encourage players to build on the fantastical element of the culture rather than relying upon stereotypical portrayals of ‘foreign’ or ‘exotic’ drawn from Britain’s colonial past. An example of this may well lie in PD’s banning of the fez as headgear, considering its associations with colonial recruitment to the armed forces and multiple different conflicts. Yet at the same time, the community of LARP in the UK is used to a relatively unrestrictive approach to game participation and part of the enjoyment of the game often lies in the ability to make references to cultural ‘memes’ (such as quotes from cult TV programs or other LARPs) within the game.

In the course of developing our group ethos and sensibilities to participate in the new game, many of these issues seem to come up again and again, often through material concerns regarding costume and props. Such material objects can be fundamental to the construction of a new fantastical world as I mentioned in my previous post. Our group, along with those designing the game, are facing a very similar dilemma. Creating a fantastical universe with no correlation to those experiences shared by participants outside of the game is likely to result in failure as regards ongoing participation, even if it is possible to maintain over a short time. Any LARP is therefore to an extent parasitical on the knowledge, experiences and cultural preferences of its players.

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.