The recent Ultima entries brought the subject of Live Action Roleplaying (or “LARPing” as it’s known in the “industry”) to mind. But I was a little hesitant to post this stuff on such a highly accredited website as to Protozoic. As Loki has pointed out information on this hobby abounds on the internet already and I hate to fool anyone into thinking the stuff I’ve written on LARPs is particularly more informative than any existing LARP-ocentric sites already out there.
The stuff below may serve as a general introduction and outsider’s totally biased critique of LARPs, but does suffer slightly from being pulled straight out of my ass. Not that I’m saying anything made from whole cloth, or even in part intentionally fictitious. But while I’ve followed table-top roleplaying games (RPGs) in general alot over the years, as I’ve mentioned at other times, I sort of steer clear of LARPs. I’ve picked up a few tidbits about them here and there, but my knowledge of LARPs is about as informed as my knowledge of football: I might have a vague ideas of the rules and paraphenalia, and maybe remember an amusing anecdote or two someone told me about the game, but when it comes to the background, sub-culture, and details of specific games/teams/conferences/etc. then I’ve been pretty much willfully ignorant of the whole deal.
Still, even though my understanding might not be perfect, I would like to discuss it at the moment. So, for the sake of argument consider the following a primer written by an outsider, or better yet a straw dog to be beaten apart so as to stimulate more elucidating discourse.
With that excessively long disclaimer…
In some iterations LARPing is not unlike when you are a kid and pretend to be a super hero or other character, running around shooting at things with toy guns or weapons, flying invisible ships, etc. As a little kid this usually works ok to some degree but with “contests” or conflicts between players it can quickly degenerate into:
- Dragon: I shot you.
- NottheJFK: No you didn’t.
- Dragon: Yes I did.
- NottheJFK: I was wearing armor. It bounced off.
- Dragon: But I used black-hole bullets, they pull you in even if you’ve got armor so you can’t move.
- NottheJFK: But I was wearing white-hole armor. It counteracts the bullets so I’m still free.
- Dragon: But I shot a really powerful bullet so it overcomes your armor.
Live action roleplaying games are a more “adult” version of this which seeks to impose some sort of rules to mediate these types of conflicts of vision.
The funny thing is up until a few weeks ago I always sort of thought LARPs were dumb. In fact even before I knew that there was a word for the practice of LARPing I thought they were dumb. As with many gamers who grew up in the 1980s, seeing a young Tom Hanks slowly comming unhinged did practically nothing to frighten me away from roleplaying in general, however running around a sewer pretending to battle crude monster props did seem ridiculously corny.
Over the years I’ve tried to qualify why I’m so put off by live action roleplaying games while still feeling table-top RPGs are a valid form of entertainment. And what I’ve come up with is this:
In table-top RPGs there are elements of problem solving and/or storytelling. And you get to sit down to play them, very relaxed and not “in your face” as it were.
By contrast I always viewed LARPs a bit less like collaborative storytelling, and more like impromptu acting. Thus they provide more opportunity to do strange things rather than just discuss them, and more opportunities to look ridiculous rather than just say something stupid. However, even though LARPs are more like acting, your audience is a bit unclear: in theory you are just acting for yourself and for the other people involved. But in practice you might also be acting for passing pedestrians in the street who’s ridicule you’ll invariably invoke, if not verbally then in their hearts and on their faces.
In this regard LARPing is also more in your face. Also it’s more of a challenge to carry across the image you’re going for. You can imagine the troll or elf that someone is narrating in a table-top RPG, you can picture the fireball or invisibility spell taking effect, but it seems like in a LARP it would be harder to ignore the fact that it’s really a pasty skinned white guy just wearing a cloak and fake pointy ears, or some guy throwing a bean-bag (a common spell-signifier in some LARPs) or folding his arms across his chest (a gesture representing the invisiblity power in a popular LARP).
Also there’s the simulation element of LARPs to consider: For example Society for Creative Anacronism (SCA) folks are all about trying to get your outfit to be as “real” as possible (or so I’ve heard) for the historic time period your re-creating (Though technically I think the SCA is more of a “re-enactment” organization than a rather than LARPing one) (1). For me that’s just too picky. If I’m going to dress up weirdly then give me a tunic and a cloak any day, but for footwear I’d prefer to wear some of my own choosing, and maybe the Ideal Pants (or just cargo shorts) rather than mens hose and/or pumkin pants.
There’s also a difference between “boffer” LARPs and more “rulesy” LARPs (for lack of a better word).
Apparently “boffer” LARPs (like N.E.R.O. apparently) get their distinction from using padded weapons and spell packets (small beanbags thrown to simulate combat spells). With boffers people actually try to hit each other and the best wins, etc. I’d assume that “boff” is the onomatopoetic sound of someone being hit with a padded weapon. Social contests in boffer LARPs are apparently all just acting. This is fine but means that if you personally are bad at physical combat they you probably shouldn’t play a fighting character, or if you are bad at social interaction then there’s really no way you can convincingly portray a social character.
By contrast the “rulesy” (I’m sure there’s another word for these, but I don’t know it) LARPs have specific rules for different interactions. You can carry weapons as props but don’t actually use them. If you get into a conflict you resolve it by comparing some simple traits and possibly undertaking a contest that doesn’t involve dice (usually something like rock-scissors-paper I think). “Rulesy” LARPS include games like White Wolf’s Mind’s Eye Theatre line, and offshoots like Rice Games’ Laws of the Bayou (sadly now only available as a google cache).
The problem I see with these is that they try to exclude the out-of-character expertise element so that how good you are in real life theoretically has nothing to do with what your character knows and can do. But if this issue poses challenges in table-top RPGs where characters are merely mental constructs somewhat seperate from the player, it seems like it’d be more of a problem in a LARPs where players physically portray the character to some degree. How do you keep someone from using out-of-character knowledge and skills when no one’s around to watch them? And even in person-to-person confrontations how do you keep a person from using their real-life social skills to some degree?
Also there’s the matter of conflict between the pretend world and simulated world in the areas of setting, props, staging, and execution. I’ve heard of people wandering around cities acting as vampires in gothy attire (not so bad) and elves in leather fetish gear (gaak!!), and other folks participating in a badly staged mock funeral while being bitten to death by quite-real mosquitoes.
…or worse: the many cases in which a referee (or “rules marshal” or whatever you call the “game master” (GM) in the LARP you’re playing) heavily plays favorites with certain players. Apparently if having an unfair GM for tabletop RPGs is bad, then having an unfair referee in LARPs usually involves a much less subtle trial of hazing, intimidation, maniuplation, and extreme social discomfort.
Now, all that said, something made me change my tune a little of late. Brian’s little Ultima exercise actually sounded kind of cool. I haven’t figured out all the reasons why yet, but here’s some conjecture:
Maybe it’s because the people involved in the Ultima outing were (apparently) not competing with each other or trying to one-up each other socially, but instead were working toward a common goal.
Or maybe it was more of a “re-enactment” than a LARP. Although the difference between a LARP and a re-enactment is kind of vague to me, I suspect that a LARP generally involves more freedom of action and choice where-as a re-enactment has stricter allowances for what is possible or can (or will) actually happen. In a sense I think a re-enactment could either be a sort of play staged for an audience (such as some historical dramatizations like the one to commemorate Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts) or an attempt to re-create and simulate the given conditions of a particular part of history (ie. Colonial House, Manor House and similar PBS series).
But the Ultima trek would be a “re-enactment” of an event that never actually physically happened. So then what sort of -enactment would it be? I don’t know. But this stuff bears some more looking into.
Maybe there is a LARP or -enactment exercise that would satisfy me. Possibly more than one sort of exercise. The idea of a model world appeals to me (hence conventional RPGs) but there are some variables I’d want to be able to toggle or adjust somehow to make the LARPs I’ve heard and read about seem less stupid, or possibly even to create the “Ideal LARP” (2).
Issues I’d like to see discussed:
- Degree of Simulation – Simulation is great (that’s what the Ultima exercise was to some degree), but what about the “fantastic elements” you can’t simulate with real-world resources (ie. magic and monsterish abilities)? Do you just choose to simulate only genres (or games/movies/books) that you know you can pull off with real-world resources? Or do you simulate the real-worldish things and just ignore the fantastic elements? Or do you impose some artificial system to quazi-mimic the fantastic elements (like spell packets or calling a band-aid and antibiotic ointment “healing spells”)? All this might vary with the LARP or type of re-enactment you want to preform. Is there some better compromise or combination?
- Costuming – Anachronism and dressing up in odd clothes can be interesting (or so I feel), and I wouldn’t mind doing a bit of it even in certain public venues. But basic cosplay, seems very focused on a specific genre (something the Ultima exercise was) without being really simulational in nature. Cosplay can be fine, but I always feel it’s lacking some sort of immersive element I’d really prefer. Not-so-simulational anachronism in attire wouldn’t be that bad either, but I’d be more interested in something that allowed true mixing of genres, where people made their own costumes rather than trying to duplicate a popular existing show or genre (3). On the other side of the costuming issue, call me a puritan if you will, but I’d like to avoid costuming crossovers with BDSM and other subcultures that make me uncomfortable.
- Fairness vs. Personal Expertise – This is a bit of a dilemma. The table-top roleplayer in me really wants to have some artificial system imposed on the proceedings to make them “fair”, at least as far as things like economics and fantastic elements are concerned (see the Degree of Simulation bullet point above), but the Boy Scout and DIY wannabe/poser in me (not to mention the Harrison Bergeron reader) makes me want to let people excel, at least at things like woodcraft and building contrivances to help them accomplish stuff. Again, this goes back largely to the Degree of Simulation issue.
- Keeping It Down to Earth – This is a big one. One thing that’s driven me away from LARPs possibly more than any other is the perception that people who participate in them try to impress one another or lord their abilities (real or imagined) over each other. In the real world you can often avoid someone if they’re acting like a jerk, or prove someone wrong if they’re claiming something that’s clearly impossible, or call someone out if they seem to be acting in a “fake” manner. But depending on the type of LARP being played some or all of these things will be more difficult to do since the “reality” of the LARP world is, by nature, more consentual than that of the real world. So “Keeping it down to Earth” could mean alot of things. It might simply mean not taking your characters precieved abilities as an excuse/means to seek power over others, or it might mean choosing characters you know you can portray (ie. ones alot like you, or just yourself in an altered context (as I assume was done in the Ultima exercise)). And in general I guess it might mean keeping a good sense of humor and proportion while avoiding farce and melodrama.
Anyway, these are sort of my preferences, or at least things I’d like to think and hear more about regarding LARPs and -enactment exercises.
What do you prefer? Or think you might prefer?
Are there any other concerns or focuses we should be discussing with regard to the LARPing?
(1) – And, sadly, they don’t even re-enact all time-periods, only Earth’s middle-ages and the few hundred years surrounding it. You can imagine my disappointment to find out that, in spite of what the name implies, they aren’t too keen on the combination of elements from earlier time periods, nor futuristic ones. “Anachronism” indeed! *Society for Medieval Recreationism” (SMeR) would be more accurate.
(2) – For additional volumes in Dragon’s “Ideal _____” series please inquire in the space provided below.
(3) – Though I fear the path of total “make it yourself” piecemeal anachronism is the surest route to madness. Or at least annoying farce.