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.

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.