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…

1 comment

  1. A good rundown of the two main different styles of LARP. I do find the ‘antisocial’ comments a bit boggling. How could anyone possibly think that a game where you spend a load of time talking to people (perhaps hitting them with foam swords as well) be more antisocial than kicking a ball around an oval.

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