LARP (Live Action Role Playing) 101
What the heck is LARPing??
Guest Blogger-Rick Stevenson
LARP. Live Action Role-Playing. It’s a word that conjures up images of people in Renaissance garb, throwing bean-bags and shouting “lighting bolt!” or attacking one another with boffer weapons. But there are other types of LARPs, from Steampunk, to murder mystery one-shots, to post-apocalyptic events like the upcoming Wasteland. But probably the most popular and enduring LARP is the Mind’s Eye Theatre system, set in White Wolf’s “World of Darkness.”
People unfamiliar with the World of Darkness, and specifically its flagship game “Vampire: the Masquerade,” may feel some trepidation at the thought of acting out those roles in a semi-public setting. We see vampires, werewolves, and the like as the embodiment of tropes, some of them ancient and mythic in their own right. It can be a little strange and unsettling the first time you walk into a Vampire game and see everyone (or most everyone) dressed in classic Goth style, or in business suits, or with bestial or inhuman features and fangs. In this article, we hope to dispel some of the more common misconceptions about LARPing, and perhaps some reluctance you may have to give it a try.
First, and perhaps the most prevailing myth about LARPing, is that it is generally much, much more geeky than your standard tabletop game. A lot of jokes are made at the expense of LARP in that it’s a bunch of dorks standing around pretending to be badasses, or being generally goofy or uncomfortable. The fact is, many players who engage in LARP do so because of the emphasis on role-playing, or costuming, or even the more adult themes that are typically associated with the settings you find among MET games. Some players who regularly play in a live-action game don’t play tabletop games at all, or do so infrequently.
You’ll find a broader swath of people in LARP than you typically would at a tabletop game. In large part this is because LARPs, by nature, require a much larger group than the typical tabletop game. While most tabletop games max out at about six or seven people, a healthy live-action game requires at least 15-20 people, and chronicles that include 50 or more players aren’t uncommon. With a larger population of players, you’ll get an opportunity to meet people of varying interests, degrees of experience in gaming, and from many walks of life. It’s a good opportunity to expand your social circle, if that’s something you’re interested in, or to engage socially with others in a controlled environment.
Which brings us to rules: the overwhelming majority of non-boffer LARPs have rules requiring consensual contact, and every LARP this writer is familiar with has rules regarding behavior out-of-character (OOC) behavior that prohibits certain discussions or actions, including sexual harassment, personal attacks, bigotry, and the like. Some also discourage such behavior in-character, or require consent from everyone involved in the scene, or at the very least require a warning for players involved that certain topics may be broached. This helps players avoid situations that may be uncomfortable for them,
giving them an opportunity to opt out or end an interaction entirely if they feel it may cross lines that they would rather not.
And there absolutely is potential for certain lines to be muddled or crossed, especially in adult settings like the World of Darkness. Themes of personal horror, sexuality, and death are frequent in Mind’s Eye Theatre. A character may be a vicious sadist, or someone who has suffered trauma in their past. Creatures of great evil can seek redemption; beings who were once pure and chaste can fall and embrace their inner Beast. These themes provide opportunity for role-play, but can also be discomforting to some players. Just know that a good Storyteller or Game Master will ensure that the players aren’t forced to endure themes that would upset them; it is nearly universal that you may choose to opt out of those scenes without repercussion.
When we say “scenes,” what we mean are individual interactions within a game, typically less than an hour and sometimes far less, wherein specific characters are involved in one location. The use of the term “scene” is to remind you that you are, in a way, performing. You are engaging a sort of improvisational acting within the bounds of the setting and your character’s abilities and history. Is your character intelligent or dull? Charismatic or shy? Trying to remain humane, or indulging their vices? Where do they come from, and who were they before they came to this place?
Writing a character history is often required in LARPs, or at least strongly encouraged. This allows you to enter the character’s mindset and give yourself an idea how they would act or respond to certain situations. In many ways, the statistic on the character sheet are supplementary. When you write your character, you then build its stats in a way that reflects how you think the character would be built. Unlike many tabletop games, there is no randomness to initial statistics for most LARP characters (assuming you have a character sheet at all). Most are built with a point-buy system, ensuring one starting character isn’t grossly overpowered compared to others. But it is merely a tool to express who your character is and how capable they are at accomplishing certain tasks. The history, and who the character is as a person, is a better measure of the character overall.
Perhaps even more important than history or character sheet is costuming. In games like Vampire: the Masquerade, characters often wear dark colors, gothic clothing, business suits, or punk clothing depending on the character’s history and alliances. Others may choose more modern clothes; some may use anachronistic or outdated fashions to portray a character’s seeming inability to move beyond their past. But other settings, like Werewolf: the Apocalypse, see characters in more naturalistic or utilitarian clothing. Still others may see even stranger fashion. You decide for your character how they would typically be portrayed and you build a costume around it. Typically, one may choose a single outfit that makes it clear you are playing a particular character, or a single item of clothing or an accessory that denotes such. A bowler hat; pocket watch; a single, sequined glove; a leather vest covered with biker patches; a particular pair of green-tinted sunglasses; a cane with a silver skull topping it; nearly any article of clothing can signify that you are playing a certain character. Costumes can be elaborate and expensive, taking weeks or months to put together. Others can be inexpensive, acquired at thrift stores are from delving into one’s own closet. But when you put that costume on, it’s like slipping into the skin of your character, and can allow you to better portray the character more immediately, and gives other players a visual marker of who it is they are interacting with if you have more than one character in a particular chronicle.
Costumes, writing, and even the act of role-playing are an investment in a character. Sometimes financially, but often with time and emotion. This investment can make it incredibly difficult when your character in a LARP dies. You may have portrayed this character once or twice a month for months or even years; you may have forged alliances, established a legacy, and seized power at the highest points within the chronicle. But LARP is, by nature, player vs. player. Unlike the very cooperative nature of tabletop gaming, non-player characters (NPCs) in LARP are infrequent and often unimportant. You are more likely to be in a battle of wits, or claws, with the other players in your setting. Because of this, player character death is both more frequent and more difficult. You may actually grieve over a character’s loss, and that’s okay. Just like with any good story, you should have a strong emotional tie to the character you view as the protagonist. In most cases, that will be your character. So when that character dies, you will feel it. Each of us handles it in our own way. Players may cry, or take a break from game, or even quit entirely. Those are all valid responses, and as players we should ensure that we treat them respectfully when they occur, and remember that it could have been our character that just fell.
But that investment is what makes LARP so fantastic. Slipping into the skin of another person, even for a short time, can be fun and liberating. For a few hours, you are not you; you may be “Marcus Quintus, Scion of Clan Ventrue,” or “Mad Jack, Gangrel wanderer,” or “Ayela the Rose, of Clan Toreador.” You could be a werewolf warrior, fighting to save Gaia from the corruption of the Wyrm and its twisted minions. You could be the ghost of a soldier, fallen in the Great War, and wanting only to protect his descendants from the curse he accidentally laid on them. You could be a fairy changeling, gifted with powers from your fae ancestry and struggling in an endless political war for the Unseely Court.
Just like with tabletop gaming, LARP gives your imagination a chance to soar. Acting, costuming, politics, manipulation, and murder all combine in a single game to give you the opportunity to play what may be the role of a lifetime. So when next you’re faced with the chance to play in a LARP, give it a good hard look, then give it a shot. You may surprise yourself with how much fun you have. And if you elect to play in Vampire: the Masquerade, just remember the Seventh Tradition.
“Don’t Get Caught.”