April 2018

larp definition

Dagorhir Roar

(Photo Credit: Kestriel Photography, https://www.facebook.com/kestriel)
(Event: Dark Tides V, 2014)

Editor’s note: This post is part of our “GM Corner Column” and are the thoughts and musings of the GMs and Game Staff of their prospective game. The opinions and statements are the author’s and the author’s alone.

During the winter here in the Mid-Western United States—where LARPs dare not brave the cold and snow to have events—I find myself working on things for LARPing more so than during the season. I craft for those who go with me to events and I sometimes enlist them (possibly other friends) to help me on big projects. When we talk about LARPing in front of other friends or people they sometimes are interested, sometimes not, but I always try and explain it to them nonetheless. So conversations come up between my friends and I while we craft and between people when they are curious about it. Between those who come and craft with me conversations can range from a sporting event to philosophy from the LARPs that we play (character morals, what would happen if we did this, etc.).

Those who ask me, “what is LARPing?” are always looking for an explanation, and they want a simple one. Many people would say, “It’s like D&D, but not, sort of, depending….” Yet, though discussions with those who I LARP with and other friends, I think the best way to describe LARPing is as a spectrum.

Like any spectrum LARPing has two ends: the sport end and the role-playing/story telling end.

Those LARPs that fall on the sport end of the spectrum are those that focus only on the fighting and athletic aspects of a LARP. They are the live-action part of the live action role-playing game genre; another name for these games are battle-games. These LARPs are about going out and fighting with foam weapons, bashing on each other, having fun. This, it seems to me, is the basis for American LARPs. Pictures of people running at each other with blue “camp pad” foam swords and shields, wearing just normal clothes, come from these LARPs. Being an American I think this became so popular in the United States because they are simple, relatively low cost, and sprung up around areas where sports are a large part of the culture.

My first experiences with LARPs—if one can call just sword fighting a LARP—was on a college campus when I was younger. I thought it was brilliant, it took me back to my childhood days where my friends and I would fight with sticks. Though there was no apparent role-playing structure to these games, it sparked my interest. I later found out that the college students called their LARP Belegarth. Some similar LARPs to Belegarth are Amtgard and Dagorhir, though over the years I have seen that there is a spectrum inside those LARPs as well. Many of the sport LARPs have began transferring to a more role-play game. I do not wish to offend the players from those games by calling them simply a sport, I know my experiences with those three LARPs are seriously lacking, but from what I have seen they seem very sporty compared to other LARPs I have played.

Sport LARPs are usually just results of teens and young adults making foam weapons to fight for fun. Whereas large LARPs that incorporate hundreds of people or more; tend to have a role-play aspect whether or not the game has role-playing incorporated into it. I like sport/battle-game LARPs for something different and simple, though if I had to choose I prefer a middle ground between these games and the games I am going to talk about next.


Under World Larp

Photo credit Sierra Katrian find her work also on Facebook from an Underworld Larp event.


On the role-playing/story telling end of the spectrum are games that are only about being your character, and combat is not a priority. Murder mystery dinners, parlors LARPs, many vampire/werewolf LARPs I have come across are like this. The rules and ideology of the game is to, basically, live another persons life for the duration of the game. While some of these heavy role-playing LARPs have combat, there is no focus and it is usually not important for the game to function. It is akin to playing dress up as kid or the “game” “house.” It’s hard to find pure role-play LARPs because many people enjoy the combat aspect of LARP.

Of course both of these ends of the spectrum are hypothetical. There are no LARPs that I know of that are perfectly live-action or are perfectly role-playing. Obviously this is due to the fact that LARP stands for live-action role-play; anything that can be considered a LARP will have, at least, a little of the live-action and the role-play. Most LARPs that we, the LARPing community, are a part of fall in the middle. The deviation from the middle is minimal—I can’t give any specifics because this is purely your choice as the LARPer to decide where your game falls compared to other LARPs—though I’m sure people could argue that there are some very close to either end. European LARPs, in my opinion, fall closer to the role-play/story telling side because there is much more immersion in those LARPs, just search for pictures of Drachenfest and Conquest of Mythodea (yes, those are extreme examples). While many LARPs in the United States would fall closer to the sport end, though there are more and more immersion LARPs popping up around the country.

So when explaining LARPing to new people, you might consider telling them it’s a spectrum and that there are many versions of this awesome activity.

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Feb 11, 2015

This is Part II in a series of blog posts that exposes the raw ego, naked agony, and rare raptures associated with designing a live action role playing event, The Dreamlands, from scratch. Part I can be found here. I hope this collection of self-reflections serves you as either an inspirational anthem or a cautionary tale of dire warning—it might be both.

No fun, my babe, no fun. –“No Fun” by The Stooges

When describing live action role playing, I surmise the most oft-used descriptor is FUN. I am not against fun, I think fun is…fun. But I don’t follow when fun becomes the sole driver or benchmark of success for a live action role playing event.

First, I always have to ask, fun for whom? The players? The designers? The majority of participants? Everyone?

Second, I always look at the fact that fun for me may not be fun for you, and vice versa.

Third, I don’t think larps are required to be fun to be valuable experiences.

What if your larp designer is working out issues and really, really wants to TPK in an explosion of misanthropic self-loathing? If fun for her is directly proportional to the misery of the players, is that OK? If not, why not?

morgan jarl

Morgan Jarl as the last man from “Mad About the Boy”, photo by Li Xin

One of my favorite stories from the New Yorker magazine is “The Dungeon Master” by Sam Lipsyte. It begins:

The Dungeon Master has detention. We wait at his house by the county road. The Dungeon Master’s little brother Marco puts out corn chips and orange soda.

Marco is a paladin. He fights for the glory of Christ. Marco has been many paladins since winter break. They are all named Valentine, and the Dungeon Master makes certain they die with the least possible amount of dignity.

It’s painful enough when he rolls the dice, announces that a drunken orc has unspooled some of Valentine’s guts for sport. Worse are the silly accidents. One Valentine tripped on a floor plank and cracked his head on a mead bucket. He died of trauma in the stable.

“Take it!” the Dungeon Master said that time. Spit sprayed over the top of his laminated screen. “Eat your fate,” he said. “Your thread just got the snippo!”

The Dungeon Master has a secret language that we don’t quite understand. They say he’s been treated for it.

Whenever the Dungeon Master kills another Valentine, Marco runs off and cries to their father. Dr. Varelli nudges his son back into the study, sticks his bushy head in the door, says, “Play nice, my beautiful puppies.”

“Father,” the Dungeon Master will say, “stay the fuck out of my mind realm.”

“I honor your wish, my beauty.”

Dr. Varelli says things like that. It’s not a secret language, just an embarrassing one. Maybe that’s why his wife left him, left Marco and the Dungeon Master, too. It’s not a decent reason to leave, but as the Dungeon Master hopes to teach us, the world is not a decent place to live.

Would you like to play in that DM’s D&D campaign? Wouldn’t that be fun? What if it was fun for him? Doesn’t he deserve fun in his role-playing game? Again: fun for whom?

In one of my more memorable moments as a PC, I played a fire mage in a long-running Southern California fantasy—excuse me, “dark fantasy”, like both kinds of music that Bob’s Country Bunker plays—campaign. This weekend camper was my first appearance as a PC, and the second time in my 25-year history of larping that I slept in a tent.

My fire mage was a graduate student that took 20 years to get a degree from the realm’s Hogwarts. He was past his expiration date, solely book-learned, socially awkward, had never witnessed combat, and, although a master of impressive fire spells, he had no idea to what extent they could be used to harm living things.

On the first night of the larp my mage celebrated graduation (at last!) from the magic academy and had too much to drink. After master swordsmen and swordswomen fought for sport, he/I staggered into the dueling pit to showcase my magical abilities in the hope that someone would hire me, since I was now out of school and had student loans to pay. I threw a few fireballs at a dummy target to little notice. I wanted to highlight my biggest spell, so infused with liquid courage and spurred by an NPC demon in disguise (I found out after the game that he was a demon), I screamed at the top of my lungs “By the sound of my voice, five fire damage!”

Thus I nuked everyone to introduce my character.

I heard people screaming “Resist!” and the demon NPC, whom I thought was my friend (he was the only one who was talking to me), said “That was great! Can you do it again?” And then I slowly yelled “By the sound of my voice…” allowing the other PCs to subdue me with the flat of their blades.

I “woke up” in the tavern, sober due to the ice bucket of grievous error. I started crying (fer reals) asking if anyone died, if everyone was OK, I didn’t mean it, boo-hoo, emo me. Outwardly, my character was traumatized, and I spent the rest of the larp trying to make amends. Inwardly, I was having the time of my life! THIS WAS FUN!

But for other players, woodsy rangers and the like, they took serious damage and had to get healed. Was it fun for them to interrupt their role-playing to get mana bactine because some idiot PC firebombed them? Probably not. Different strokes for different folks.

As a larp designer, though, I have to consider everyone’s idea of fun, including my own. Therein lies one of the central conflicts in live action role playing: what makes a larp fun? It is always subjective, dependent on the participant’s personality at that point in time as well as the role-playing of others. What is un-fun at one point in time might lead to delicious joy a few moments later, depending on circumstances that I, as a designer and GM of a larp, can’t always (and often refuse to) control. In a future article I’ll examine the issue of responsibility in a larp; in short, there is a dance between everyone involved as to what is fun or not. I’ve run events, larp and not, that some people hated yet others considered the most magical, amazing time of their lives.


Finally, I don’t believe that an effective larp must be a fun larp. Markus Montola wrote a percipient essay entitled “The Positive Negative Experience in Extreme Role-Playing”, with the following abstract:

Fun is often seen a necessary gratification for recreational games. This paper studies two freeform role-playing games aiming to create extremely intense experiences of tragedy, horror, disgust, powerlessness and self-loathing, in order to gratify the self-selected group of experienced role-players. Almost all of the 15 interviewed players appreciated their experiences, despite crying, experiencing physiological stress reactions and feeling generally “bad” during the play.

I enjoy attending larp-like events such as Accomplice the Show and Halloween haunted houses like Delusion. Last year my wife and I went to Blackout, an “extreme haunted house” that began in New York and oozed into Los Angeles. You are required to sign a waiver and given a safeword before walking through the rooms alone where you will be cruelly pushed, roughly shoved, raw groped, your face smeared with fake blood, force-fed something nasty, your wrists cuffed tightly and pressed to kneel for a long time on concrete with a plastic bag wrapped around your head. In one room, a naked man crammed my face into a messy mattress and “masturbated” over me (onanistic experts would say he was faking)—before tossing me out of the room like soiled tissue because he couldn’t climax.

Blackout was chiefly a repulsive expenditure of two hours (mostly spent waiting in line) and sixty dollars. But I don’t consider it a waste of time nor money. It made me understand myself better in ways that don’t come easily in a semi-comfortable, cushioned first-world existence. I have no plans to attend again and rate it a zero on the fun meter, but do I regret it? Not hardly.

Please note:

  • I am not saying all or even most larps have to be like Blackout.
  • I am not saying you are required to experience an un-fun larp.
  • I am not saying un-fun larps are better than fun larps.
  • I am not saying fun is to be eschewed in larps.
  • Most importantly, I am not saying that I am designing The Dreamlands to be un-fun. I am aiming for fun as a component of that larp, but it is not the only nor the lead goal.

I am saying that defining and rating larps solely by their “fun quotient” is, to me, reductive.

For The Dreamlands I seek to provide an environment and tools so that participants, myself included, can have fun, but primarily I hope to create something that is meaningful, memorable, worthwhile, provocative, or, when my ego is especially bloated, epiphanic. If turns out only to be fun, that’s great, I don’t disparage fun larps in any way. The world is horrible, fun is palliative.

But I also believe that larps can be — and some already are — so much more than fun-making activities. Fulfillment might not be fun, but it is a worthy aspiration, even for live action role playing.

What is your definition of a fun larp experience? Do you enjoy ‘bad’ experiences in character, or does it take away from your ideal game? Join in the discussion below!

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Jun 10, 2013
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