Larp is… a character-driven one-shot.
One of the most contentious divisions of the 20th and 21st century is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Just as hostile is the split between theater larp and live combat larp—but without the bloodshed, the battles confined to forum flame wars and bellicose bluster. Participants of one larp type typically don’t enjoy participating in the other. I know YOU do, though, my Special Snowflake. I’m talking about every other larper except you.
There are subcategories within this bifurcation as well. In live combat, there can be larps with more Nerf guns than foam swords, a full contact combat system bashing away in low RP battle games or a light touch fighting style in a lore-laden world course. There’s a pigeonhole for each bird to be shoved into.
I am going to focus on a subgenre of the theater variety: parlor larps. This term was first coined by Shifting Forest in 2005 to represent larps that are simple to set up yet complex and deep in meaning. This style of larping has gone by other names: murder mysteries, mini-games (from New England), live games (from UCLA’s Enigma), “Tavern larps” and “nighties”, two different types from Germany, or interactive theater. However, I view all of these (which I am going to consider under the generic name parlor larp) as a subset of the larger theater larp style. All parlor larps are theater larps, but not all theater larps are parlor larps. I hope spotlighting a distinction between the subordinate genre and parent will illuminate the larger field of theater larps, with a little enlightenment dispersing dark doubts about experiencing this kind of activity.
Following are four misconceptions about parlor larps:
- Parlor larps never have combat in them.
- Parlor larps are for emo queens who love to cry and make a spectacle of themselves.
- Parlor larps always focus on dark, depressing themes.
- Parlor larps only use real world settings.
While there are certainly parlor larps that fit these points, not all of them do. Let’s instead examine common traits of a parlor larp. If a larp has most or all of these qualities, it’s probably a parlor larp, and if not, it’s probably not. Note the qualifier “probably” in the preceding sentence. Larp analysis and dissection is in its infancy, and our postmodern renaissance in the art and hobby of live action role playing is also nascent. Creating hard definitions for larps is like gathering fog with a fork. Like any good art, it’s up to the artists and visionaries to smash these categorical walls.
Caveats aside, here are four characteristics I use to define a parlor larp:
1. Combat is representational: you don’t actually hit someone with something. What you do instead is widely varied but usual suspects include: rock-paper-scissors, comparing raw character skill levels, flipping a coin, drawing a playing card, and, rarely, rolling dice. Sometimes these are combined such as adding a PC’s skill to the number on a drawn card and comparing results. Rarer still are staring contests, thumb wrestling, dancing. The unifying facet is that the player doesn’t physically hit their antagonist with anything.
This does NOT mean that fighting is sparse in a parlor larp, just that the process for determining results is not based wholly or partially on the physical prowess of the player. In a parlor larp, Stephen Hawking could play Conan the Barbarian.
2. A parlor larp is not part of a campaign. When the event is over, it’s over. Some have sequels, but in general whenever a parlor larp concludes, that’s the end of the narrative—although like the “Whatever happened to…” montages at the end of high school movies, GMs and players customarily construct a coda for their characters. Related to this point, most parlor larps take place in a single, continuous time span, typically one evening. Atypical is the parlor larp that lasts more than six hours.
This limited duration and set finale usually funnels the energy of a parlor larp to a large climax as the PCs unfurl their big powers or reveal their scandalous secrets near the end because only a few minutes remain to accomplish character goals. This is both a strength and weakness of the genre: it almost guarantees an explosive ending, but it also creates a predictable, formulaic structure. But then, we know almost all movies climax in act three and we still enjoy watching them—a formulaic structure does not guarantee a faulty experience.
3. Parlor larps emphasize role-playing and character relationships, a.k.a. “fluff.” Character point builds are uncommon so min/maxing is nearly absent, and since it isn’t a campaign, there are no experience points and no incentive to hoard assets, unless they are part of the character’s goal. This low barrier to entry (memorizing rules deters many people from larping) leaves a lot of room for character personality and motivation. The bulk of text on a parlor larp character sheet will be devoted to qualities like history, hopes, fears, flaws, desires, dreams. Whether the GM or the player or both write those words varies from larp to larp; the common thread is that there are more words than numbers.
This does NOT mean that parlor larps demand Oscar-worthy performances from the players, or that the characters are larger than life figures ogling to emote every emotion in the book in rapid succession. Some characters can be plain, subtle, quiet, withdrawn, and even stable. Either way, they are often three-dimensional from the start, not a matrix of stats that accretes personality over the course of a campaign.
It also does NOT mean that parlor characters won’t have stats, abilities, powers, skills, attributes, etc. It does mean that those quantitative qualities are sewn into the fabric of the whole.
This point does NOT mean that playing a parlor larp will leave you an emotional wreck, but you could, if you allow it, be emotional.
4. PvP: Most parlor larps are, as my wife explains, “A circle of fireworks aimed inward at each other.” Characters frequently have goals that directly conflict with another character’s goals. The drama from PCs fighting one another appears more than from a GM unleashing a battalion of crunchies from monster camp.
This does NOT mean that parlor larps uniformly reward narcissists. Collaboration, trust, and brinksmanship are generally critical skills for this genre.
This also does NOT mean that the GMs of a parlor larp are your character’s lickspittle or even a neutral party. They may be the ones to rebel against. However, most of the time parlor larps have some degree of characters fighting other characters. I like to use the phrase “CvC”, or “Character vs Character,” because I think it’s a misnomer to say you are fighting against the actual player for the larp experience.
Nordic style parlor larps encourage transparency before and during the role-playing. In the ubiquitous pre-larp workshop, the real players talk about what they expect, hope, and hope to avoid in the larp. With player openness, character conflict can increase in intensity. Nordic larps manifest a strong metagame component that shields (not completely) the players from the words and deeds of the characters.
Note that I didn’t mention anything about setting, tone, production value or PC count. A parlor larp can be a sentimental four-person (three players, one GM) exploration of a love triangle in the real world sans costumes or a screwball comedy for 40 sartorial sensations pretending to be mortals and immortals nightclubbing a Tiki bar in Hell.
Parlor larps, for all their austerity and brevity, have been known to create catharses and epiphanies. Their minimalism keeps a tight focus, much like Twitter’s character limit prevents rambling. Some of the strongest larps I’ve participated in were, in my mind, parlor larps: The Road Not Taken, Mirror Room, and The Tribunal. This is not to say that a larp fantasy saga can’t be impassioned or life changing. However, I believe it is improbable for an escapist hobby larp dedicated to providing the most fun to the most Paying Customers, a.k.a. PCs, to evoke or provoke genuine psyche change in a player—I said improbable, not impossible. Verily, a player’s personality change in a larp campaign normally takes longer to notice—months or even years.
- Not all Nordic style larps are parlor larps, and not all parlor larps are Nordic style larps. They do have similarities.
- Some live combat campaigns will hold a parlor larp between weekend campers, or as a convention event where potential recruits can get a taste of the larger epic.
- There can be parlor larp elements in boffer larps such as a lengthy character backstory, an emphasis on role-playing, and even CvC (character vs. character).
- Many parlor larp designers release their scenarios for others to run, so they’re easy to propagate. If you would like to read or run a parlor larp, some of the best were designed by Shifting Forest. They are all available as free PDFs here.
- A stunningly successful IndieGoGo campaign for the Larp Factory Book Project will soon bring a collection of Nordic larps to the public as well.
- The Massachusetts-based Intercon convocation is also known for running parlor larps.
- Parlor larps usually occur in one location, such as a house or meeting hall, but to me that is a common trend, not a requirement of the genre.
- Parlor larps are common at conventions, but not all con larps are parlor larps.
Parlor larps are like low-budget drama movies, and fantasy campaigns are like grandiose TV series. Neither is objectively better, though we all have our preferences. One axiom: both styles can learn a lot from the other, and an occasional dalliance in the opposite form may improve your regular live action role playing.
It’s worth a shot.
If you are predominantly a theater larper or fantasy boffer campaign larper, have you ever tried the other type? Did you learn anything?
This article was edited on November 5 by the author to reflect discussion as to the etymology and qualifications of parlor larps, as well as add the last two notes.