Alternative uses of roleplaying games

It is not a new thing to recognise that the impact of games, or of leisure activity, goes beyond a superficial understanding of entertainment. Competitive sports have been used as training exercises, frameworks for peaceful interaction and even to distract a population from starvation and riot. We know that there is value to be found in the playing of games. It is interesting, then, considering how in UK culture RPGs are generally denigrated and ridiculed, to see how often such games are used for ‘serious’ reasons.
A few weeks ago, I met with the documentary makers of Treasure Trapped to do an interview about LARP and I was asked to comment on the broader use of LARP as a training tool. It will come as no surprise to the LARPers who read this blog that ‘doing it for the experience’ can encompass more than even serious gaming. Lizzie Stark has discussed the use of LARP as a military training exercise in Leaving Mundania, and equally the Nordic LARP scene is well known for it’s serious treatment of realistic scenarios for personal development.
Today, on twitter, I saw someone post a link to the following website, which presents the visitor with a ‘make-your-own-adventure’ style written RPG. Depression Quest is an attempt to raise awareness about depression through the empathy (and possibly pleasure or frustration) people playing the game will experience. The goals of the developers in this case are not necessarily that the player will have a ‘good time’, but that they will have an ‘experience’. One of the main distinguishing features between a written RPG scenario and a live-action event is that in the latter the experience is more dynamic and unpredictable. But more broadly, then, this got me to thinking about the differences between ‘roleplay’ as a game, and ‘simulation training’. LARP may well be taken seriously by few people outside of the LARP community in the UK, but even for those of us who play in LARP games, it is not ‘serious’. The experience is not focussed on a particular outcome with real-world ramifications. Rather, that experience has different meaning for different players based on their engagement with the game. Fundamentally, LARP games are collaborative rather than ‘directed’ in the way that a training exercise might be. So I played through the above game (Depression Quest), and although it aims at promoting empathy, it is a puzzle. The objective is to try to get your character through the scenario and on the road to recovery. Your progress is monitored by criteria listed at the bottom of every page. Objectives in LARP are often not clear, or are negotiable (after all, you could always give in and join the zombie hordes). Perhaps this is where the difference between ‘leisure’ and ‘training tool’ lies.

To be continued….

Comments welcome

LARPwriting, the 25-step list…

Event organiser, LARP director, Entrepreneur, Logistics expert, Referee…being in charge of a LARP event makes you all of these things and more. Some groups attempt to separate the different roles of running a LARP event among a team of people but in many cases unless running a full-scale ‘fest’ system, one person will ‘wear many hats’. For the uninitiated these are some of the many tasks;

1. Register with a group to run an event using their rules system or design your own system and publicise it.

2. Survey and book a suitable site (scout camp, country house, self-catering cottage, municipal parkland…) for an appropriate date.

3. Purchase public liability insurance for your event.

4. Write an event plot which incorporates a scenario overview and planned ‘encounters’ to provoke crises, details any costume, props and makeup that will be required and outlines an approximate timeline of the narrative.

5. Write character details and background narrative for non-player characters of substance. Recruit volunteers to play these roles.

6. Book a caterer or plan catering for players and monsters/volunteers.

7. Create an advertisement or booking flyer. Advertise the event to potential players and  monsters/volunteers.

8. Write character outlines or request that these are submitted for review by players.

9. Take payments or deposits from players. Register monsters/volunteers and assign roles (including first aid or other roles as required by insurance policy).

10. Manufacture or purchase props, costume and makeup or special effects

11. Provide players and volunteers with all relevant and sufficient information they require prior to the event (including character information and OOC information such as directions or catering information).

12. Acquire radios or walkie-talkies if needed.

13. Arrange transportation of all relevant materials to the site.

14. Travel to the site to prepare the event. Walk over the site to ensure all locations can be used as planned for encounters. Make any last-minute changes or adjustments. Liaise with site manager and put up signposts to the event if required. Check all site facilities (e.g. bathrooms, lights) are functional. Check all props and equipment. Complete a risk assessment if required by insurance policy. Establish and set up any any set-piece areas. Mark out a control area or ‘monster room’. Direct caterers if required. Direct vehicles of volunteers and players as they arrive. Brief all volunteer crew and players.

15. Start the game…..

As may be clear from the above list, there are many tasks not directly involved in the ‘writing’ of an event. In fact, very few of the above tasks will even ensure that an event is ‘good’ or enjoyable for the players (and volunteers). If an event is poorly written, or if the caterers are not appropriately set up, or if all the players get lost trying to find the site….all of these things could result in a poor game before the game even begins. The tidy nature of the above list also conceals the chaos of organising many such events, when a site is re-landscaped or props are not transported to site on time, key NPCs are delayed by traffic and last-minute changes have to be made. Even these challenges seem quite orderly compared to the problem of trying to manage the budget or cash-flow of such an event. Many costs have to be paid up before the event is even advertised, and props can only be commissioned once money is available to pay for them. So the above list is really a misleading model of what might go into organising such an activity.

Any person or team running a LARP event may also face numerous challenges once the event begins. These might at first seem clear, but in so many cases the problem becomes remarkably complex;

16. Brief, make up and costume monsters, send out to ‘encounter’ the players according to the timeline.

17. Liase with caterers around timing of ‘crises’.

18. Adjudicate rules queries and provide players with information regarding IC enquiries.

19. Improvise additional encounters or set-pieces ‘on the fly’ to respond to player improvisation or to account for differences in the pace of the event.

20. Debrief monsters and NPCs to attempt to predict player actions.

21. Respond to any OOC problems with the site, catering or relevant crises.

22. Orchestrate the ‘finale’ of the event, or final encounter (this will often involve a larger scale written encounter with more significant props or special effects) to present a narrative ending – either by killing the player characters or through resolution of a final challenge.

23. End the game

24. Debrief players and volunteers.

25. Ensure all event materials are cleared up and site keys returned, any breakages noted and paid for. Collect all remaining consumables and props. Congratulate volunteers and players, then transport all materials off-site or to secure storage.

How hard can it be? Let’s take number 16. Do you have the person who wrote the narrative available to brief the monsters? Does everyone clearly understand the objective? Is the font size on the printout too hard to read in the approaching darkness of a crowded tent with few lanterns? Do you have time to brief the monsters after they are made-up or do you have to brief them during costume changes and make up being applied? Who is applying the make-up? Do they have the appropriate skills and expertise? Are the monsters allergic to latex prosthetics?

The devil, as they say, is in the detail. Many of the articles I have read about running LARP events seem to concentrate on the narrative and matters of pace in the game, ensuring appropriate levels of immersion and so on. Yet this ‘directorial’ focus seems to obscure the ‘backstage’ chaos and skill which goes into any LARP event. Some games notably employ a ‘meta’ level of discomfort to players in order to help with immersion, insisting they ‘survive’ on their own rations and ability to find a safe space to sleep, another character trustworthy to keep watch and so on. Yet not all games (or game organisers) are prepared to take this line. The notion of ‘bleed’, a beneficial crossover between IC and OOC experience, is a helpful one in understanding why organisers may wish to promote such activity, yet how often do we see Conan the barbarian visit the lavatory, or Sherlock Holmes tying his shoelaces? In some cases the narrative genre which inspires the LARP event encourages the game to eliminate various spaces and activities from the storyline. In our pursuit of immersion, we have to make decisions about what will be part of the game and what will be outside of it. This post, then, simply serves to highlight the hidden parts of organising a LARP which nonetheless have a huge impact on the game itself.

Usual disclaimers apply. YMMV. Comments welcome.

Hello (again) world

Dear internet,

it’s been a while hasn’t it? I do apologise, I have missed you. Sadly the ‘real’ world of work is not as forgiving as the fantastical world of roleplay, where if you neglect your position some bright adventurer will often seize power in a brutal coup, leaving you to calmly roll up a new character on your next visit to the field.

I have been putting together costume for a new game I am attending at Easter, and investigating wedding garments for myself and spouse-to-be. I was struck by how many of my concerns were similar during these shopping trips and online forays; how re-usable would the garment be for different events? How comfortable will it be? What associated props do I also need to budget for? These questions apply just as much to a wedding suit or dress as they do to costume for a given them and setting at a LARP event. I began to think about how important wedding clothes were for what in LARP would be called ‘immersion’. Will they make the day significant and convey my identity and life decisions by representing me in my ‘best’ light? How important is it that they be customised rather than ready-to-wear? Do they appropriately represent ‘me’ as a person?

I began to wonder how many of these concerns affected the other shoppers I could see around me in the gleaming urban shopping centre. I suspect (from my admittedly quite snobbish position) that they have the same worries but are perhaps less aware of the extent to which these worries are informed by the social power of ‘brands’ or our consumer habits. However, these criteria have changed significantly over time, as those items which are of significance and notable ‘in society’ are transformed by change in taste and technology. Hand-made items are now the preserve of luxury goods, but variety of colour and textile appearance is now something attainable by most consumers.

At LARP events our props and costume are generally considered relative to the setting or genre we are trying to portray, and also due to the skill and uniqueness apparent in their making. Sometimes there is talk of adding to the ‘authenticity’ of the narrative or experience in the same way that re-enactors value the authenticity  of historical reproductions. In our attempt to find commercially produced items (in the form of wedding stuff) that held the same value in portraying something about a ‘special day’ (and how I am beginning to hate that term), I reflected on how it must be hard to do the same with everyday shopping. Perhaps this lies behind the close attachment people develop to certain ‘brands’ as representing their identity.

One to think on….

Comments welcome!

….the role of props and background representations for conveying membership and performing ceremonial rituals…

LARP imitates life Part 2 – Cultural Imperialism

New year, new LARP system.

Since some friends and I are involved in running events a lot of the time which often results in failing to get an opportunity to relax and play events, quite a few of us have decided to spend some time playing in a new system. Much of the holiday has therefore been spent discussing our plans for new characters, new costumes, how we will use the rules on character creation to generate appropriate skills for those characters, and how we want the group to ‘feel’.

Part of the difficulty surrounding these discussions has been focussed on the real-world cultural associations of the fantastical backgrounds presented by the new system. To date, most of my LARP experience has been in playing roles inspired by the 1920-50s English upper and middle classes, fantastical ‘others’ based on Celtic mythology, Welsh chambermaids, London jazz singers, and one instance of Celtic-sailor’s-daughter-raised-as-an-arabian-dancer (though no-one ever did comment on my pale skin-tone). In all of these experiences, although there have frequently been community discussions about ‘how Celtic are we?’ and ‘how Celtic were the Celts, actually?’ most of the group have been pretty comfortable that even though the fantasy setting mangles the myth in many ways, it is our own island heritage we have been toying with. In the new game world we intend to play, we will instead be adopting a culture which (although it has been very carefully designed) is predominantly inspired by Arabian, Persian and North African mythological traditions.

So is the step from fantastically-torturing-my-own-ethnic-heritage to fantastically-torturing-someone-else’s-ethnic-heritage such a big problem? And is it even genuinely someone else’s heritage if it’s a fantastical construct? There are several traditional rules in LARP, and notable for the associated forum community is rule 7: don’t take the piss. This rule invokes the collaborative nature of the game to stress that where the rules of the game leave some ambiguity, players should take care to embrace the ‘spirit’ of the game as conveyed by the organisers and the community as a whole. Such ‘spirit’ might be interpreted as a matter of culture, but in my experience of UK LARP it incorporates fair play, sensitivity to the contribution of other players (as well as organisers, crew or ‘monsters’) and an awareness of the limitations of the LARP form as a game which relies upon a combination of imagination, physical representations and embodied skills.

So the question which worries is to what extent ‘rule 7’ is compromised by adopting  practices or props which could be seen as racial or cultural stereotypes. In the development of their new game world, Profound Decisions‘ (PD) development team have made explicit attempts to steer around such tropes and encourage players to build on the fantastical element of the culture rather than relying upon stereotypical portrayals of ‘foreign’ or ‘exotic’ drawn from Britain’s colonial past. An example of this may well lie in PD’s banning of the fez as headgear, considering its associations with colonial recruitment to the armed forces and multiple different conflicts. Yet at the same time, the community of LARP in the UK is used to a relatively unrestrictive approach to game participation and part of the enjoyment of the game often lies in the ability to make references to cultural ‘memes’ (such as quotes from cult TV programs or other LARPs) within the game.

In the course of developing our group ethos and sensibilities to participate in the new game, many of these issues seem to come up again and again, often through material concerns regarding costume and props. Such material objects can be fundamental to the construction of a new fantastical world as I mentioned in my previous post. Our group, along with those designing the game, are facing a very similar dilemma. Creating a fantastical universe with no correlation to those experiences shared by participants outside of the game is likely to result in failure as regards ongoing participation, even if it is possible to maintain over a short time. Any LARP is therefore to an extent parasitical on the knowledge, experiences and cultural preferences of its players.

LARP imitates life Part 1 (Reflections on Leaving Mundania Ch 6-8)

In Lizzie Stark’s “Leaving Mundania”, there is a historical description of the cultural backlash experienced around LARP in the US throughout the 1990s which presented the game experience as at odds with common Christian family values. This is labelled the “satanic panic”. Since I do not think this issue is directly in evidence currently in the UK (we are after all, a country renowned for eccentricity), I have been thinking instead about how mainstream cultural attitudes and morality are incorporated or explicitly rejected in the creation of a separate ‘game world’.

In the opportunity presented by fantasy, the design of a utopian dream is given a chance at reality. Yet in the pursuit of dramatic experiences demanded by the format of a game, those who write and develop such ‘new worlds’ often incorporate sources of tension. These might involve racial or species differences, limited access to resources or cultural differences. A classical difference present in sources such as Tolkien lies in the difference in longevity experienced by those of different races and attendant feelings of cultural superiority. Playing characters in a game which draw on such different attitudes to our own everyday lifestyles is a challenge requiring imagination and originality. However, adopting novel attitudes to specific groups or issues is only one aspect of performing the character in a given fantastical game, the player is also required to suppress some of their everyday attitudes. For example, attitudes towards racism and slavery may have to be adopted to play a particular sort of character, but gender equality or reversal may also require significant modification to player attitudes, as might a group rather than an individual focus on value in honour-based cultures.

Gender harassment

Gender harassment in LARP is something that anecdotally at least is on the decline (and in this sense I refer to the harassment of women by men. The opposite may occur, in fact I think I could describe several instances of it, but no one has ever told me of it in such terms). Nonetheless, I have experienced several instances of gender harassment myself (and some very recently). The general cultural norm which positions women as inferior (however minutely) to men is reinforced by many of the adventure genres that permeate the LARP hobby. As described in Lizzie Stark’s book on the US scene (and evident in Fine’s study of tabletop gamers) , there is also a ‘boys club’ element to the origins of LARP in wargaming that supports the gender distinction. In the space of play, it is particularly difficult to fight against not only the contemporary cultural norms, but these reinforced attitudes of the particular narrative genre. Although women playing warrior characters, or educated scientists (in victorian or 1920s themed events) are more frequent than they once were, the hobby has not quite reached the stage where there are no impediments to acknowledging this constructive element of the fantasy.
Recent attempts to build game scenarios which are more tolerant of divergences from the written canon of associated genre publications have attempted to provide more egalitarian situations for gameplay (e.g. Profound Decision’s new game, Empire). Yet though such developments to incorporate genre-appropriate variants of democracy and equality/meritocracy are promising for the hobby, this only addresses the ‘added’ aspect of the performance. A notable concern emerges from attempts to encourage players to reconsider their existing prejudices or everyday attitudes which are not adjusted in performance, but which remain as a bottom layer of activity.

Lizzie Stark addresses some of these issues indirectly when she describes the experiences of a player’s life in the military outside of the game compared to his ongoing involvement in a fantasy role as a law-upholding knight (a paladin). This comparison caused the individual concerned to reflect (not always comfortably) over time on the relationship between violence and moral absolutes (what is right or wrong). LARP is at times considered a dangerous hobby in part because it involves the breaking down of particular social assumptions and practices. This raises questions about the authority of those practices in the everyday.  For the knight defending a horde of villagers from goblins things are pretty straightforward. For the infantryman patrolling a foreign province, less so.

To return to the issue of gender then, although the role of women in a particular LARP may allow for differing interpretations of their place in society (and the nature of LARP rarely positions female players as primarily breeders), certain practices and language remain unaffected. In better scenarios, the role of women is presented in a playful fashion, or are explicitly reversed to create a matriarchy. These do not seriously challenge particular structures or attitudes as they tend to position the female players in a mothering role. In most scenarios, the conduct of LARP has no  bearing on the gender relation since the ‘added’ performance of the game is built on existing cultural tropes of woman-as-sex-object, woman-as-secondary or woman-as-homemaker. It is from these categories that many discussions of the ‘healer-girlfriend’, ‘princess’ or ‘catgirl’ and similar LARP clichés emerge. Finally, in the worst scenarios individual players take advantage of the ambiguity of LARP practice to undermine particular cultural standards of women-as-individuals to instead behave in line with standards of women-as-property (which can be stolen, traded, broken, etc at the risk of the ‘owner’).

These observations are not based on extensive theory or empirical research but simply reflect experiences I have had in the field alongside those others have discussed with me. LARP also offers a silver lining on the issue of gender harassment as with so many other issues. By ongoing or reflective participation in LARP, individuals can recognise the disconnect between individual moral choice and prevailing ‘norms’ of everyday practice. It is also easier to notice in LARP how these issues of behaviour and choice can be misinterpreted easily by different groups, and the resulting unintended consequences.

As this post has become excessively abstract, I have broken it into two parts.  The second part will consider cultural imperialism in costume as an example to discuss some of the points already made above.

The usual disclaimers apply, please feel free to comment.

 

What’s that coming over the hill?

…is it a monster?

Most LARP activities rely upon a crew of volunteers to run, often known as ‘crew’ or ‘monsters’. These volunteers may help with anything from digging holes, to acting out the roles of ‘bad guys’, refereeing game regulations or providing first aid assistance. They are usually rewarded in some way for their time and involvement, either through in-game benefits, or out of game considerations such as free food, indoor accommodations and the like.

Such a description does not really ‘fit’ the idea many people might have of a monster, or a monstrous agent. Quite the opposite. In the above illustration monsters seem to be quite helpful, self-sacrificing creatures; more beauty than beast. I thought in this post it might be interesting to highlight both the function played by ‘monsters’ in LARP, and a broader reflection on how monstrous they seem in general. To be more specific in the use of the term, although volunteering to monster, or ‘going monstering’ may refer to undertaking any assistant backstage task to facilitate the game on behalf of the organisers, in the majority of cases it refers to performing a costumed acting role according to a specified ‘monster brief’. A brief comprises a rough guideline from which the volunteer may improvise an appropriate script of dialogue or behaviour.

Igor, the servant of the god-like master

Where a player in a LARP game may have full control of their actions and dialogue, subject to the restrictions of their embodied capabilities, monsters can be understood as lesser people, subject to the whims of the organiser or referee. Some monster roles may involve representing ‘cannon fodder’ such as weak little goblins or gretchen tasked with inconveniencing players, who are obliged to slaughter the beasts and reaffirm their status as heroic figures (this is the LARP equivalent of removing a household spider from the bathtub). There is little opportunity, in such roles, for the monster to act autonomously or to sway the course of events.

Even in more developed monster roles, such as reoccurring appearances of ‘evil masterminds’ or knowledgeable figures to interact with players, the detail of the brief and the abilities associated with the role lie firmly in the hands of the organisers. Monsters, then, are in this sense the serfs of the fantastical performances constituting LARP events, with organisers and plot writers their masters. As creatures without free will they are not fully human, but stunted individuals subject to their Machiavellian overlords. In a sense, they are pitiable monsters, unable to reach the status of a fully autonomous player.

The mercenary, the gunslinger, the barbarian outsider.

Such a depiction of monstering is one many players would likely reject, as it is not entirely accurate and it is slightly derogatory. Like any labour, monstering is often a process with tangible and intangible rewards. To paint a picture of monster volunteers as shackled servants would be the same as stating that the ticket sales clerk at the cinema, or the teenager in the House Griffindor costume at a Harry Potter attraction is in some way ‘monstrous’. While Karl Marx would likely take such a view, it is perhaps worth exploring the potential rewards of monstering more thoroughly.

In most games that require significant numbers of monsters, a select crew of volunteers will be recruited for the whole period of the event. As well as the potential enjoyment offered in the guise of successful role performances, social camaraderie and broader exploration of the fantastical world experienced through the ‘bad guys’ perspective, monsters are also often provided with free food and/or board. In persistent game worlds, monstering may likely confer benefits on the volunteer’s player experience, through transferable advantages or items which have a particular effect in the game. These are often tailored to the volunteer’s preferences by way of a token exchange system, so those playing fighting characters might ‘buy’ a special weapon, while knowledge based characters might ‘buy’ access to libraries of information on languages or herbs.

Although in theory monsters might be paid in ‘real’ coin for their time, I have never encountered this or heard of it in the UK LARP context. The closest such exchange I have ever come across has been through payment ‘in kind’ in the form of monsters being offered the ability to keep game costumes or props for personal use, or discounts on such items from affiliated traders. However, there are distinctly intangible benefits accrued through regular monstering. Experienced monsters gain expertise in many aspects of the game such as the rule mechanics, the makeup and costume presentation of particular monster types, and in the improvised portrayal of diverse and sometimes complex roles. In each of these areas such stalwarts acquire a level of kudos or respect from the community, and are often consulted on difficult situations or recruited to show new volunteers ‘the ropes’. Such veterans are often identifiable by their extensive repertoire of stories or accounts of earlier experiences which often figure them in a significant (and at times even maverick) role. It is this social approval of the volunteering role that perhaps lifts the ‘monster’ from wage-slave to contributing citizen. However, as I once discovered, rejecting some form of payment is considered unacceptable, as such behaviour impunes the status of monsters as a whole as no more than the Igors described above. As much as such community members may be applauded, monsters must remain outsiders, secondary and parasitic agents.

The invisible man, the terrifying unknown

The function of monster roles in LARP is to introduce or advance moments of dramatic tension as part of the narrative encountered by players. However,
when they appear in the game, it may not always be apparent that they are a ‘monster’. Some games make frequent use of ‘planted’ characters under the control of the organisers, either to add drama to the game or simply to add colour and assist with creating a particular ambiance. Although referees and ‘backstage’ crew are frequently easy to spot by specific markers that denote them as outside the game world (high-visibility jackets, specific costumes or coloured markers are often used), many in-game monsters are carefully costumed to be indistinguishable from a player character. Although in many circumstances players within the game can identify monsters by their lower costume standards, or by recognising the volunteer as someone they can identify as associated with a different character, conspicuous by their absence, monsters which are concealed as players or simply well-costumed and prepared can pose an ‘invisible’ threat.

A key aspect of this lies in the function and status of a monster. These ‘monsters’ are dressed as players, in the same space as players, indistinguishable from them, yet their intentions are unknown, and may be threatening. These ‘double agents’ may be less attached to their roles than players, and as they are under the control or direction of the organisers their motivations are unpredictable. Should a monster ‘die’, they are likely to still fulfil their function by adding to the drama of the game, yet for such an occurrence to befall a player undermines their position as key agents or ‘heroes’ in the narrative drama. Monsters are in this sense a threatening ‘other’, different from players and yet seemingly the same. As chimera, in this sense monsters truly are monstrous since they illustrate the arbitrary distinction drawn between player and game-world. At the same time as monsters heighten and draw attention to that boundary, their task is to artfully conceal it from players; to promote a sense of ‘reality’ in the construction of the fantasy.

To be a monster at LARP is something of a double-edged experience. The very existence of monsters, as of the back-stage crew in general, is to perpetuate the dominant fictional narrative. Yet in the liminal space they occupy, the in-between world that separates the fantastical construction from the mundane one, monsters perhaps highlight the fragility of both those worlds.

LARP is not theatre nor psychodrama! And I am not Spock.

This post has been two weeks in the making. I couldn’t bring myself to upload it last week because it seemed to me to be on matters so controversial to the UK LARP community. However, following quiet and ‘ladylike’ discussion of the issue with a friend over tea this weekend I thought it had better be aired after all.

Leonard Nemoy famously wrote two autobiographies; I am not Spock (1975), followed by I am Spock (1995). In both books, Nemoy discussed his relation to the character he famously portrayed on tv and film. Apparently many Star Trek fans took exception to the first book, not having read it, at such a rejection of the character by the actor. Such issues of identity between character and player are often an outsider’s view of LARP. Also, I have previously compared LARP to pantomime, art installation, and personal development exercises without clarifying the extent of that relation.

This post is a struggle over the ‘outsider’ view of LARP as theatre or psychodrama (including identity struggle) rejected by many UK LARPers, compared with the reality of such themes emerging in many events. The existence of particular types of European LARP which encourage the hobby as a means of self development or political commentary are themselves akin to art installation or public theatre. Also, there are ‘thin’ types of LARP which are familiar outside the community as a type of  theatre; murder mystery evenings or themed restaurant experiences which demonstrate a more passive or superficial engagement than most LARPs. The majority of UK LARP events I have attended would strongly publicly deny any affiliation with this ‘sort of thing’, yet would also, within the community, admit to the potential LARP offers to provide it for those who wish to explore other aspects of their identity or find joy in the presentation of a conventional narrative scene. In some few respects this struggle seems rather similar to the one Leonard Nimoy faced, not only is it a personal struggle, but there is a large community of people who may misinterpret the headline.

So, LARP is about having fun, the sort of fun grown-up people are not supposed to be allowed to have unless its something morally dubious such as sex, drugs, alcohol and chocolate cake. Added to that, ‘wholesome’ fun is really considered quite unfashionable. So my previous comments in the posts Introduction to LARP and What is normal? do highlight the fact that yes, on occasion the ‘sinful’ elements do make an appearance. Especially the cake. Perhaps we should admit that yes, LARP is indeed a bit silly, childish even. Why is that disallowed among adults? Perhaps the underlying concern comes from the idea that children’s play is practice, for an unforgiving world, undertaken in a forgiving fantastical one. Our role as adults lies in putting that utopia in the past and instead attempting to forge a new one rather than escape to the old.

To all intents and purposes LARP does offer an escape. An escape from self, from structures of everyday life, from work or family and from social demands. It is perhaps a retreat from a world in which individuals feel they have no impact into one where they may change the narrative of history. Yet simultaneously what all LARPers know and few outsiders realise, is that such an escape is illusion. The best that can be hoped for, as in any hobby, is to experience ‘flow’: being-in-the-moment. Participation in LARP is dependent on having holiday from work, finding a babysitter, raising the spare cash for the entry fee. It is impossible to leave the cares of the world behind, or to experience a social environment with morals and rules dramatically different to our own (more of this in later posts). It is also near impossible to explore and perform a character role that does not draw upon the knowledge, experience and personality traits of the player. Everything that surrounds a LARP event continues for players within it. LARP could not exist if it were not for the rest of our economic and social lives. In this sense, LARP is an activity which exists in a parasitical relationship to our everyday ‘mundania’. Yet we gain additional benefits from it above the ‘escape’, benefits often attributed to psychological development or engagement with the arts.

LARP is fun, escapism, theatre and psychodrama. LARP is LARP.

And Leonard Nemoy is and always will be Spock. Live long and prosper.

Death (in LARP)

It may seem strange to non-LARPers that the death of a character in a game can be extremely emotionally affecting. As an entertainment, a friend of mine once ran a one-evening horror LARP two nights in a row, one evening attended by regular LARPers, and another evening by interested work colleagues. The event was in some respects inspired by the murder mystery genre, and there came a point when the players discovered a body hidden in an attic. The LARPers responded with extreme performances of distaste and shock, while the non-LARPers made some indicative remarks over how unfortunate it was and quickly set to ghoulishly examining the body for clues. When some of their own party were in turn murdered, the distinction between the two groups’ behaviour remained evident.

In such a short timespan, it is hardly to be expected that either group would develop a genuinely strong connection to their character. Equally, the non-LARPer contingent in this case were less involved in the initial development of their character’s history and background. Furthermore, these characters were played for no more than an evening. In fantasy LARP, however, some players perform the same characters for over a decade. Even more than actors in a long running West End/ Broadway production, these performers become closely entwined with their performed alter ego. The ‘part’ is written by them, for them. They costume the character, develop their history, respond independently to life events. And if actors feel a sense of loss at the end of a long run of performances, LARPers too may have an emotional response to an end where the character can no longer be played.

There are of course in-character responses to death which are separate to the out- of-character response to the loss of a character. As I am considering character death generally I am not going to discuss the IC responses, although they are varied and interesting in their own right, particularly in the relation IC responses have to OC responses (see previous post on Immersion versus PvP). Last week I attended an academic workshop on death and loss which made me realise there might be correlations between the tangible experiences of losing a character, and how it could compare (albeit in a ‘thin’ way) to the loss of a loved one.

What comprises ‘death’ in LARP?

In the majority of different LARP systems there is an established mechanism for ‘death’. Under particular circumstances, the character enters a liminal condition which requires intervention from other players to preserve their ‘life’. The character may have limited or no participation in this process (for example, they may be ‘unconscious’ or they may be able to demand help). Without this intervention, the character will ‘die’ and the player loses all claim or control of that narrative and performance (there are some few exceptions, as when the organisers might find it useful to transform the ‘dead’ character into a threatening zombie or guardian spirit, but the discretion lies with the organisers and no longer wholly with the player).

Fear of death

While characters may have a particular attitude to death appropriate to the culture and setting of the game, players are likely to have a healthy reserve about the death of their character from the offset. On a basic level, to die is for the game to end, to ‘lose’ in some form. If the player is competing on systemic advancement of the character with other players, death eliminates all acquired advantages. If the player’s intent is to engage in the game on a narrative basis, then the narrative is completed or cut short dependant upon the circumstances of the death. All developed ties to other characters cannot continue with the player in a new identity, even if they re-enter the same game, therefore there is something of a ‘social death’ experience. Finally, costume and props which may represent significant investment of time and money can also become unusable or have limited applicability in the next role.

Each of these aspects is something that a player may justifiably ‘fear’; yet does this constitute a fear of ‘death’ or is that instead a matter of a transfer of emotion from performed to embodied self? This touches upon a difficult area. While the Scandinavian model of LARP may encourage the pursuit of ‘bleed’ and emotional transfer between player and character, this is not widely held to be the case in Britain. Instead, the performance of emotion is applauded, but any inability to maintain the distinction between self and character is an infringement of a fundamentally cherished principle of the game.

Recalling several near-death and death experiences of my own in LARP, one aspect which does seem to strike home is the narrative aspect regarding being ‘ready’ for death. I have experienced some deaths which I felt were ‘good’ in that they fit with the narrative I was attempting to portray, and others which were troubling in the sense that they were unexpected, or followed periods of uncertainty. In every case I have felt a little upset, often proportional to the length of time I invested in the character; however I do not expect that my experiences reflect those of everyone. I may discuss these instances further in relation to social connections and the role of momentos in a later post.

Ignorant of the rules – avoiding death

One of the most controversial issues in LARP surrounds the administrative process of death and its associated loopholes. In one large well known LARP system, characters are marked as dead by cutting the player’s laminated card in half with scissors. This can only be done by a referee. In other systems players must self-declare as dead, a type of altruistic suicide which preserves the integrity of the rules system. In the minority of games I have experienced, the referees or game organisers take whole responsibility for the character’s lifespan, and will inform the player of their status accordingly. Each and every system of this type works on a basic set of principles (the rules system), and upon trust among the players and the organisers. However, there are instances where that trust is infringed or broken, through ignorance or arrogance. I confess to making mistakes of ignorance myself, although I was lucky enough to have a referee on hand at the time to correct me. My short term memory is particularly poor and I have a tendency to miss things in the heat of the moment. However, when players specifically set out to ‘cheat’ death, this suggests that it is indeed something to fear. That such circumstances do exist lends some support to the idea that perhaps death in LARP does have some significance for players that is more than the sum of its inconveniences listed above.

Finally, the distinctive scenario of a game populated by LARPers and one populated by non-LARPers demonstrated one distinctive difference. Those who were not used to playing this sort of game, in concentrating on the puzzle solving element, were inclined to ‘forget’ their responses to wounds and the death of other characters after a few moments. They focussed on ensuring the solution was found to the outlandish scenario they found themselves in. The LARPers familiar with the format instead seemed to revel in the emotive responses which frustrated their overall aims, struggling on despite their ‘psychological’ and ‘physical’ limitations. I do not know which group had more fun.

Comments welcome as always.

LARP Sights and Sites

I was talking with a colleague today about how people tend to paint the countryside as an idyllic fantasy land and it seems that in LARP we don’t just do that, we try to make it a reality. And importantly I think we tend to be more successful in doing so than Disneyland (which my father once said was the name of an engine room on board a ship he was on; this disney wurk, that disney wurk, and yon twiddly thing over there, well it disney wurk eether). All bad jokes aside though, there is always the search for a ‘perfect’ site.

What makes a perfect site for LARP? Often I think it is about versatility; what can the place be ‘dressed up’ to represent? How many places can we stage a ‘safe’ fighting area while also changing it enough to keep it interesting? How conveniently can the ‘behind the scenes’ work of costume, makeup, catering and game management be concealed while also being close enough to ‘the action’ to be responsive? The agenda of the game organisers is to ‘use’ the geography of the countryside to produce an ‘immersive’ environment (see previous post), but this dream of fraught wilderness, sophisticated country mansion or remote planet is just as idyllic as the arcadian vision of the beautiful peaceful countryside untouched by man (the very dream many other visitors to the same sites are often pursuing). Let’s look at the pattern of a ‘usual’ event…
Friday afternoon: the event organisers arrive, with weeks if not months of pre-prepared props and set dressing to transform the site into a fantastical environment. As hangings and fake blood, mysterious twigs, eerie wind chimes and hidden lights are placed in position, toilet rolls and soap are fully stocked along with huge amounts of tea and coffee. Tents are erected or sleeping bags unrolled on bunks. Doors are checked and unlocked and last minute supplies are scrambled for, sometimes with the assistance of the site owner or management. The area is walked, evaluated, claimed as usable or unusable for the purposes of the game. Perhaps the ground is too waterlogged, or riddled with badger holes. Bracken may have overgrown the paths. Areas identified as ideal locations for ‘key’ scenes or hiding points are found to house chickens or sheep. Worse still, it may transpire that public paths or farm tracks are well used by local people. Arrival paperwork is put in place and walkie talkies charged.

Friday Evening: Players of the game arrive in vehicles, with their own camping equipment ranging from authentic medieval cooking tents to state of the art mountaineering boots. New players discover the difficulties of setting a camp and turn to the more experienced for assistance, who reprimand them for their lack of planning for an outdoor setting. Tales are told of players who in extreme weather simply accepted the challenge of nature and survived without the comforts of home. Cars get stuck in muddy verges or sandy bowls and people rush hither and thither to don their costumes, in the process taking on their character roles. After a discussion and reminder of the rules and the limitations of the site (clear your rubbish, don’t park there, mind the ground-nesting birds, don’t leave the designated area), the game begins. The rush of the players calms to an engagement with a calm and fictitious world while the organisers place crew members in position. As the excitement builds and the players move from one location to the next, the crew try to remain one step ahead of them, coordinating in fevered whispers over hand held radios in an unknown pitch blackness. Scrambling in the dark raises tension to a height and after the game concludes for the evening, players and organisers alike settle to a companionable drink, drawing the tent doors to shut out the cold night air or gathering by a bonfire of destroyed transportation pallets.

Saturday: As all on site awake to the unfamiliar noises of the lark, the rooster, the donkey braying in a nearby field (or was it the chap snoring three tents down?), the lack of the ‘ordinary’ adds to the sense of adventure. Whether the rooster was mistaken for dedicated crew creating mysterious noises as part of the game, or the cold showers simply highlight what is often taken for granted in presenting one’s ‘face’ to the world, the discrepancy between the wild and the civilised is clear. All the ordinary rules may well be broken, but they are replaced by new ones. The remainder of the day continues much as the previous. In the evening, a lycean spirit takes hold of many, and  the drinking often reaches a different pitch (as do some individual’s singing voices), to set the birds aflight.

Sunday: As the unfamiliarity of Saturday begins to resemble a pattern, the game winds to a close. The tents are packed, the props boxed away and loaded into the vehicles, and some compare their experience of the weekend happily before they stream away towards Birmingham, London, Portsmouth, Cardiff, Glasgow, Dublin. Some find it difficult to leave this community so recently forged, and linger among the waste and forgotten scarves as the organisers and volunteers clean the site buildings and pack away their own things. Eventually, time and tide may not wait and even the M5 cannot be put off forever; the site is left behind in the hands of its caretakers once more.

Well, I didn’t promise an objective account. What continues to interest me here is how the countryside LARP site is used to host events, interpreted in a particular way which is sensitive only to the needs of the game, and while players and organisers alike wish to ‘escape’ the modern world, the city, to a fantastical realm, it is very much on their own terms. While the requirements of the locals and site owner/manager might be respected, the countryside is not visited on its own terms, but only through a lens of usefulness. Yet it remains the ideal retreat; it is just that ‘ideal’ is understood a little differently.