If you’ve never LARPed before, you probably at least have passing familiarity with the concept of it. Live-action role-playing is basically a real-world kind of Dungeons and Dragons; it’s World of Warcraft unplugged. Participants make up fantastic characters complete with a history and personality; they design costumes and weapons, forge alliances, stoke rivalries and play out their chosen scenarios. These scenarios can range from Lord of the Rings-style high fantasy with wizards and elves to dark horror with vampires and werewolves. A LARP is limited only by the imaginations of those participating and maybe the weather.
As with many aspects of geek culture, LARP has often been the butt of jokes. That said, it wasn’t so long ago that the idea of meeting someone to date on the internet was the nerdiest thing people could conceive of, but it’s much more popular now. But just because it’s goofy to some people doesn’t mean it’s not a boatload of fun to others, and there’s a lot about LARP that people on the outside have no idea about, both good and bad.
It's not just dudes
For reasons we may never be able to fully figure out, nerd culture is often mostly associated with men. Iconic nerds like Milhouse Van Houten, Steve Urkel, and Sheldon Cooper are all dudes. Very rarely are women folded into the mix, probably because of some weird nerd sexism. Women can love nerdy things like men, and they do. And this is just as true in the world of LARP as everywhere else.
As the BBC points out, the gender split at some LARP events, like The Gathering put on by a group called The Lorien Trust, is pretty even. In 2013 they were rocking attendance numbers around 3,000.
Larp Guide has census data that shows the gender split at LARP events across 29 different countries. To be sure, men are the majority, but there are strong contingents of women LARPing in many countries. Women make up nearly 50 percent in several countries and are actually leading the pack in Belarus.
While the numbers bob up and down, they do show that fun is fun no matter who you are and LARP definitely has room for everyone to join in.
It's not always a fun time
If you play video games, then you’re already familiar with the acronym NPC — non-player character. NPCs are a necessary part of any game that involves characters. They exist to further the story — maybe they provide details to you that help you move the game along, or perhaps they offer abilities and supplies. Maybe they’re just flavor, adding some fun to the game by looking cool or authentic or whatever it may be. But they’re not you, the game player. They’re just something programmed into the game to make your experience more fun. Now imagine you were that NPC. It happens in LARP.
LARPer Neal Litherland explained in his blog Improved Initiative about the worst LARP experience he ever had. Upon showing up at one LARP he’d never attended before without someone to introduce him, he was forced to clock in an entire day’s worth of time as an NPC instead of volunteering to do so as is the custom. He played goblins and orcs and also a corpse, but he was never allowed to play “his” character. It would be like showing up to play baseball with friends and being forced to be an umpire the whole game. Yeah, you’re helping, but it’s not why you put in the effort.
It's not made up on the spot
What you don’t see by just passing a LARP by or reading about it online is the time that went into it. Like any hobbyist, a serious LARP fan puts serious hours into the game. To pull off a proper LARP requires a ton of time and dedication in terms of prep work to make sure it goes right. And that’s not just the real world details of organizing participants and timing, it’s also creating an entire persona from the ground up.
The Mind’s Eye Society is the largest and longest-running group that runs authorized role playing events set in the world of Vampire: The Masquerade and other properties created by publisher White Wolf. Their website (now apparently defunked) had pages upon pages upon pages of documents for players to learn. They had a six-page style sheet, 18 guides to different clans you can choose to be a part of, and a 16-page character creation document.
Creating a new character for Mind’s Eye included making sure you have a three-sentence background that details who your character is, where they came from, and what their weakness is. You needed a timeline that covers six specific events in your character’s life. You needed three plot elements you wanted to be involved in. Basically, you needed to create a believable person. It’s a lot of work.
Not all the problems are left on the battlefield
If you’ve ever played a game of Monopoly with someone who’s overly competitive, you know just how ugly people can get when winning is on the line. Some gamers take things too far and lose sight of the fact that this was supposed to be fun once. LARP is no different and maybe, in some ways, even more intensely tied to this. After all, when you LARP you become the game, and that means you’re more invested in how it plays out than you are with a board game.
There’s a commonly accepted rule in many LARPs that crossing your arms in front of your chest means you’re invisible. You could use this to leave a battlefield and not be touched, for instance. That said, there are stories of players doing this to listen in on private conversations, as though perhaps they were literally invisible. One LARP forum member recounted being at a con in the hotel lobby, in a suit, conversing with another man in a suit. “Invisible” LARPers refused to leave them to talk despite being told no one was role-playing at the time. Combine that with grudges that move from game to game, or even people challenging others to fights in parking lots, and this game is way too serious for some.
You'll probably still have to grind XP
If you’re a gamer in the video game sense, you’ve probably run across a grind or two in your time. If not, then all you need to know is that a lot of games like to toss in busywork to keep players occupied and make them gain experience, or XP, to get stronger. Surprisingly, this also happens in LARP.
LARP needs rules to govern who and what your character is. You can’t just walk on the field and say you’re Superman Ninja T. Rex and start finger-snapping people to death like Thanos. You earn power by earning XP. New players start small and earn XP by attending events. For example, in a typical XP progression, you might earn 4 XP at one event, and you could spend those points to have your character learn a new skill like the ability to cure poison.
One former LARPer blogged about reasons they stopped LARPing and included the XP grind as part of the reason. Because some players had the time and money to travel from state to state attending different events, it allowed them to level up much faster, and essentially dominate all other players. In gaming terms, that’s called being overpowered, and no one likes playing against that.
Conflicts aren't just resolved by fighting or debating
Given how intense some LARPing can be, there are bound to be conflicts between players. In combat, you rely heavily on the honor system to get things done. If someone claims to have cut your arm off, how can you know for sure your arm got cut off if you’re both using foam swords? You have to agree that the game mechanics meant yes, that person’s attack cut your arm off. But when you don’t agree, conflict resolution comes into play.
If neither side can agree on the issue and no outside observer can shed any light on the situation, then there’s one tried and true method of problem solving that the vast majority of LARPs use: Rock Paper Scissors. As goofy as it may sound, at the end of the day there are few other real-world options for trying to end a dispute quickly and fairly.
Some LARPs actually don’t even do live combat, which is to say there are no foam swords being used. Instead, fights are all done via Rock Paper Scissors so the outcome determines who won a particular fight and no one ever runs the risk of being injured or disputing an outcome.
You can't use just any weapon
Somewhere out there it’s entirely possible that someone is LARPing about politics and trade negotiations and hardcore bureaucracy. Most people want to mix it up, though. That means weapons. You can’t very well slay a dragon, an orc, a vampire, or a super mutant if you’re not well-armed. Thing is, you can’t just pick up any random stick or prop sword and call yourself a Master LARP Samurai either. There’s a lot that goes into LARP weapons because consistency and safety is key.
Plenty of LARP groups have very specific weapon rules. In one Albany group, no more than one-third of a weapon’s length can be the handle. Any weapon used for striking has to have a soft foam tip. Even shields and bows that should not be used for hitting still need foam covering, just in case. If you haven’t used a certain type of weapon before, you need to check with the people running the show to make sure it’s cool. And every single day you need to have what they call a “certified LARP Group Weaponsmith” check your weapon before you use it.
Are all the crazy rules necessary for play-fighting? Maybe not, but they also mention that no one has ever been seriously injured under their system, so something is working out.
Some events last way longer than just a Saturday afternoon
When you think of an actual LARP taking place, what scale do you imagine? You may be surprised to discover just how many people are into a hobby if you don’t know much about it. After all, if it was super popular than you probably would know tons about it, right? While there are no doubt small-scale events with only a handful of participants, big LARP events are very big. We’re talking in the thousands.
ConQuest is an annual LARP event that takes place every August in Germany. Potentially the largest event of its kind, ConQuest boasts 6,000 players, 1,500 NPCs and over 1,000 storylines to get involved in. Tickets can cost as much as $175, and you can even buy tickets to have your dog included. All of this takes place over five solid days of roleplaying. Incredibly, this LARP has been going on since 2002. Even though it’s an annual five-day event, each new event builds off the old, like new chapters in a book. It’s continual storytelling and world-building that’s been going on for a heck of a long time at this point, and seems to only be getting bigger.
LARP costumes aren't just a collection of Goodwill finds
When you’re a kid, the world of make-believe is an easy place to visit on a budget. You don’t need to invest a lot in pretending you’re a dinosaur. But as with a lot of things in life, when you grow up, it gets more complicated. Even though LARP is just pretending and acting out a fantasy, there are a heck of a lot of garnishes on that plate. All the costumes and weapons and gear that accent your character don’t come cheap. And that means there are a few artisans of LARP out there making a lot of money.
Dark Knight Armoury is a store that makes and sells LARP weapons, and their prices range from $16 for a simple sword to $263 for an elaborate shield. If you want the convincing suit of armor to go with it, you can shell out over $3,000, according to Career Addict. Some LARPers have discussed investing as little as $50 to well over $2,000 into their costumes.
When you factor in the costs associated with potentially securing venues, as well as things like food and lodging if it’s a multi-day event, a good LARP with a few hundred participants could make someone a tidy profit.
LARP battles aren't lawless free-for-alls
If you’ve ever engaged in play-fighting with friends or a sibling, you probably know how easy it is for play-fighting to become real fighting. Someone hits too hard or fights unfairly, and then your fun and friendly game gets very aggressive and very angry. How do you avoid this on a massive scale when dealing with potentially thousands of people who may all be wielding foam-rubber swords and magic wands? You need to follow the rules.
Every LARP group has their own published set of rules. The Albany LARP group, for instance, offers a detailed accounting of what is and what is not acceptable on the battlefield. If someone yells “hold” for instance, you must stop what you’re doing and also yell “hold” until the entire game is frozen. This is described as their most important rule.
Marshals patrol the field and determine if a hit is real or not. Obviously you’re not actually losing limbs in combat, so these people will judge if you should act like you did. You can’t hit in the groin or in the head, which is a good rule of thumb for almost every aspect of life. If you’re fighting a woman, no hits to the breasts, either. The point is to touch but not actually destroy your opponent.
Not all LARPers are super serious about the whole thing
So maybe no one out there thinks LARP is serious and important stuff. Likely everyone from casual observers to critics to the people who actively enjoy it have never looked at LARP like the world hangs in the balance. That’s fine — it’s meant to be fun. It’s worth noting, however, that whether you think LARP is completely foolish or that it’s the most fun you’ve ever had in your life, it definitely gets weird sometimes.
Salon details an account of one fantasy-themed LARP called Otherworld. The writer joined at the behest of a friend, and it had all the aspects you’d expect a fantasy LARP to have — mages and magic and warriors and such. But some of the gameplay mechanics got a little weird. For instance, when a character died in the LARP, obviously the person was still alive, so how did they let others know they were dead? They draped a piece of cheesecloth over their head and remained totally silent, like a queso ghost, until someone came along with the power of resurrection. Does this mean the field was chock full of cheesecloth-ensconced silent wraiths, roaming about in search of clerics or magic potions? Sounds like it.
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