Blog

0 comments on “LARP imitates life Part 1 (Reflections on Leaving Mundania Ch 6-8)”

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.

 

0 comments on “What’s that coming over the hill?”

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.

0 comments on “LARP is not theatre nor psychodrama! And I am not Spock.”

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.

1 comment on “Death (in LARP)”

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.

0 comments on “LARP Sights and Sites”

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.

0 comments on “LARP Precedents & Antecedents (Reflections on Leaving Mundania Chapter 3)”

LARP Precedents & Antecedents (Reflections on Leaving Mundania Chapter 3)

Unfortunately I missed last week’s regular update due to our two-day research retreat in the peak district. The windswept moors, however, and the rocky crags did give me some pause for thought on the geography of LARP. There are some areas which look fabulous as settings on the big screen which simply do not work as event venues, either for reasons of comfort or of safety. However, the geography of a place also has significant implications for staging events which is not always necessarily helpful.

Queen Elizabeth a LARPer, eh?

Well not really, in Lizzie Stark’s book, Elizabeth I was immensely entertained by theatrical pageants which required her participation as monarch. She was hardly playing a character, she was ‘playing’ Queen, which, incidentally, she was…

However, the point that links LARP with pageantry, improvised theatre, war simulation games and the like is an important one. LARP has a lengthy history that differs in the UK from the US, and sources differ as to whether it emerged in Europe simultaneously, or subsequently to the US. Certainly most persistent LARP games in the UK trace their emergence to “Treasure Trap” of the 1980s, which was a predominantly freeform game that made use of a local heritage site, sadly not the class of venue often available to LARP groups. In contemporary LARP, numerous country houses, nature parks and scout camps still play host to games up and down the country, as do many university campuses.

If the theatrical characters envisioned by a community ideology (in the case of pageants) or a playwright are too constrained to be comparable to LARP, and the intellectual rigour of war games is too regulated, a comparison can at least be drawn by reference to the use of space and venues to create the immersive experience so particular to the hobby. The Tudor and Elizabethan antics often emphasise the ludic reinterpretation of space to create chaotic revelry in the order of the Royal Court, and events of heroic and fantastical stature in the countryside (assisted as often as not by a crew of theatrical performers, puppeteers and staged effects). This element is shared by contemporary LARP and art installations alike, although one attracts more social status than the other.

As LARPers arrive in period homes or scout camps across the country, they often disrupt the everyday goings on and expectations of the inhabitants. They do not fit the genteel middle class tourist stereotype, their costumes provoke attention and their aims at reinterpreting lawns as rolling grasslands, dining rooms as construction areas for outlandish beasts and tranquil parks as fields of battle resemble the disruption Queen Elizabeth’s touring court may have caused as it descended upon a rural idyll. Scout groups and those who maintain period houses are sometimes thrown out of their depth by individuals who instead of demanding TV and phone facilities, ask if they can build a fire in the portico or drape lights from the hedges. Public liability insurance is only offerred by a small number of firms, for while injury in service of entertainment to Queen Elizabeth may have brought honour on a family, a dog-walker slipping in treacle placed to represent eldritch gloop is more likely to make claims for any subsequent accident.

In summary, while it is valuable and interesting to identify the links between LARP and similar historical activities, it is important to recognise that one of the features of LARP lies in a very inward-facing community, carefully trying to limit the accidental incursion of their world into that of passers-by. Compare this to the inclusive agenda of the historical pageantry and even of modern day contemporary art, which aims to affect others, LARP is focussing on affecting ourselves.

All examples drawn from personal experience. The usual disclaimers regarding my personal point of view apply.

0 comments on “Community Debates I – Immersion versus PvP”

Community Debates I – Immersion versus PvP

Disclaimer: all of the views represented in this article are my own and I confess to immersionist sympathies, though I have tried to represent both perspectives fairly in the below article.

In Live-Action Roleplay there are various different aims and objectives. As a theatrical-simulation experience one significant aim lies in developing a sense of ‘immersion’ in the game world; convincing yourself, even if only for a moment, that you are your character and the events around you are real. This is usually a part of the game new players find difficult, though some are perhaps more ‘natural’ than others. One of the ongoing controversies of LARP lies in the validity of different aims of play. Although LARP is described as a game, much like ‘life’ there are no clear win conditions. Nonetheless, to some it can be considered a ‘lose’ condition if your character dies (especially if this is unexpected or unplanned). There are complex feelings around this issue among the community. While immersion is relatively uncontroversial as a goal of the game, other aims include competitive rivalry to develop greater ‘powers’ or strength according to the game rules. The best way to test this is by player versus player interaction. The matter of PvP (which usually refers to player versus player combat, often resulting in character death) is therefore controversial as it brings these different aims of play into conflict.

Immersive PvP

Taking the broadest possible interpretation of player versus player interaction, every aspect of play in most games incorporates an element of this. Players may (and do) compete on grounds of inventiveness in on the spot improvisation, on costume, on wit, and on talents that cross the in-character / out-of-character boundary, such as music. As such, player versus player interaction which is embedded in the context of the game is the foundation of the roleplaying ‘art’.

PvP which ‘breaks’ immersion

It is possible, however, for some forms of PvP interaction to come into direct conflict with immersion. Where resolution of competition involves extensive recourse to the rules of the game, or where one party perceives the other to be infringing either the letter or spirit of those rules. At such a point, the interaction drifts from in-charater interaction to out of character gameplay (sometimes referred to as ‘meta’).   For the immersionist, this is a deviation from the object of play. For the competitive player, this is recourse to the laws of the game, which form a key part of play. However, the competitive player experiences just as much tension in such conflict, for unless an adjudicating referee is to hand, the trust system on which rules are applied may be infringed (intentionally or unintentionally) by players who are ignorant of the detail of the rules. This is also likely to ‘break’ immersion through creating inconsistencies in the game world.

Other elements

In discussions of roleplay versus immersion, other elements are often introduced into the argument. Some of these I hope to discuss in later posts, as they highlight some of the most interesting parts of LARP as a carefully maintained fantasy world. However, such concerns often detract from the argument above. They include ‘professionalism’, or discussions over the difficulty of maintaining clear internal distinctions between IC (in character) and OOC (out of character) knowledge, emotion and behaviours. There are also concerned discussions over emotive ‘bleed’ as a significant aim of the activity and the emotive distress felt at character death. This in turn often highlights and questions the parasitic relationship between the hobby and ‘real life’ in terms of income and skills; this is often added to the discussion in economic terms related to the cost or time required to put together costume and weapons, the ability to regularly attend events and so on.

The nature of immersion

Roleplay is a narrative game, albeit an improvised one. To maintain the aspect of narrative requires commitment to preserving the game world, sometimes at the expense of the norms of everyday life (as any LARPer who has gone four days with only cold showers will tell you). Narratives cannot continue if the ‘book’ is closed, the ‘tv’ muted, or the fantastical game world interrupted in a similar way. Yet equally, in a world which is not a perfect simulation, some recourse to a world outside the narrative genre is required. It is rare you see a fantasy hero/ine visit the bathroom on camera (unless it furthers the narrative).

Yet the goal of immersion is to be fully absorbed in the flow of the narrative, to set aside the thoughts and worries of an outside world and be ‘in the moment’. This requires support in maintaining the suspension of disbelief, even in order to be the biggest good or bad guy in the field. It is likely that conflict between the goals of PvP and Immersion will always be in some small amount of tension.

Quotes from players (unsolicited by the author):

“Roleplay is a means of escapism, It’s a way to be more theatrical than in real life, to be more than we can be. Immersion does not equal roleplay, I actually prefer tabletop to lrp, It’s easier to lose myself in a world of my imagination uninfringed by others interpretations. I have been to ‘highly immersive’ systems and seen some of the shortest roleplay ever, but with 4 to 5 people sat round a table I have had some of the best, most emotional roleplay in the 15 years I’ve been doing tabletop and lrp. Pvp I support, as long as its well grounded, look at history, famed figures did kill and assassinate each other, heroes and villains should die in battle with each other, and sometimes people who have aroused the ire of bad people should just disappear… I am however against random murders and killings, deaths should be earned. All good stories, historic, mythic, sci fi, all have deaths, and the people killed don’t always know why, and sometimes aren’t even the right people, for me, roleplaying is all about being part of a story, live or die, its about being a good character, not winning, its lrp, not a board game.” Matt Strange

“it’s a difficult line to draw, but it’s the actual monetary investment, the osps and clothing, effort making armour that affects the way you feel about losing your character and therefore makes you pissy when some random bod kills you for nothing other than fun…don’t have a problem dying by getting caught in the night by monsters, or even players accidentally mistaking me for someone they’re trying to job for a reason (for example), like I’ve done something stupid to upset them IC (perfectly possible for a kender).” Sam Rose

“Personally I think that dying IC is a big part of the game, and is what makes the game feel real, I myself am giving myself a massive pvp tag at some time in the near future by becoming a werewolf, because if my character dies, then I wasn’t trying hard enough to keep that character alive…” Deklan Howells

“In my opinion, PvP has its place, but there is no hard and fast answer to the ‘good or bad’ question. It will probably always happen, but is affected by two major aspects: firstly, the aims of the system (to generalise – family fest system or hardcore immersive) and secondly the motivations behind the PvP actions (i.e. are they IC or OOC). I’m not a big fan, although I’ve been involved in some in the past but it’s part of the game so not really avoidable.

All I have to say about mugging, with Jen and I having been mugged twice at the G (did we mention “Twass! – In 5 minutes – within 50yds of the gate!”), both the mugger and the ‘muggee’ need to be aware of the search rule. One of the times, I was searched for about 5 secs and asked “What have you got?”, so I said “nothing you can find!” and the mugger moved off. If I’m searched properly, then they’re welcome to what I’m carrying, otherwise…” Mark Bateman

0 comments on “Patching together a technicolour reality”

Patching together a technicolour reality

multicoloured patchwork cloak lining in greens, browns, yellows, rusts...One of the very first worries any player is likely to face, whatever their gender, is “what should I wear?” Costume is perhaps not the most important part of entering into the LARP world, but it does play a significant role. In this post, I thought I would share the story of one of my earliest costume creations for a LARP character, the emotions and the practicalities that surrounded that item, and how I think such items are important symbolic artefacts in the reality of the game.

Keeping Dry

Starting my experience of LARP as I did in the north-west UK, the unpredictable nature of the British weather played a large part in my experience of the game. LARP was fun, but it was also interspersed with clammy goosebumps and shivering, which (if you’ll pardon the pun) put rather a dampener on things. My early experiences of ‘fest’ LARP also made me keenly aware of the large proportion of the time that was not running screaming into battle, but instead standing around in the drizzle, huddling together with other players over a small campfire and passing a small hipflask around to keep warm. Cloaks were available for sale, but they tended to be very pricey, and I was on a student budget. Someone at university made blanket cloaks (rectangular woollen things with a clasp), which were better than nothing but didn’t quite keep the rain out or the warmth in. Most importantly, they didn’t convey the dramatic swirling atmosphere of highwayman-come-fantasy romance that the game seemed to aspire to.

Taking all of the above into consideration, and having acquired a budget sewing machine, I began to hatch my plans. Cloaks require a lot of fabric, and wool was expensive. I thought about how I had seen people playing wood-elves in leaf-patterned leather armour, and how I intended my next character to be a mildly aggressive wood-fairy, inspired by woodland, thorns and branches. I wanted something that reflected forest colours in all seasons but which could be used in different situations to blend in as well as to stand out. With that in mind I decided to make a reversible patchwork cloak. I would be able to use scraps to assemble the quantity of fabric required as well as to get the “dappled woodland” feeling I wanted. The gap between the patchwork and cover layer would create an insulating barrier and thus the cloak would be warm even if made from synthetic fabrics.

I bought a pattern, and made free with the sample section of a local curtain shop. I also kept an eye out for bargains in the offcut bin, and bought a large amount of green suede-like fabric for the backing. At a tiny tea-table I sewed square after square together into long strips, then sewed these to each other until I could barely see. I toiled like this for three days, barely eating or sleeping, then trimmed the fabric to the pattern shapes on an ironing board. The more I worked on the fabric, the more I thought about the character. My frustration at a broken machine needle became yet another obstacle in my way to the character’s goals, and why she had left the forest to meet the other players in the game. The fusing of the pattern pieces was fundamentally part of developing the story I intended to play, since as the patches came together, so did the personality of the fictional role.

After the frenzy of stitching, the cloak had to be washed, rinsed in waterproofing solution and dried. Waterproofing solution has a particular waxy scent to it, a scent that to this day I associate with adopting the belligerence and stubborn prejudices of that character. When a close friend of mine became tainted in the game world I refused to associate with her during game time for around three years. We are, of course, still marvellous friends the rest of the time.

Getting kitted up

The cloak, once made, was (and still is) enormous. It would not conveniently fit inside my rucksack, but instead had to be rolled and strapped to the outside of the bag, exposed to the elements. Once arrived at the event in the game world I found that the cloak, although successful at keeping the rain off and some warmth in, was so long as to make standing up once having sat down a perilous process. Other players/characters often stood on the hem and accidentally pinned me to the spot. I feel that this difficulty only encouraged my stubborn nature as the character.    The only way to go into combat elements of the game was to throw the garment over my head and hope to return to it later. I did begin to adopt a rather particular attitude towards objects as a result of this, trusting an item only for as long as it was within my grasp, for who knew what purpose another would find for it? Other player characters held strong views against the written word because of the way it could be twisted when taken away from its originator, and my character fell in line with this argument. My interactions with other players, rather than encouraging segregation due to my performed stand-offish personality, actually encouraged development of the fictional community, establishing a different group morality that was distinct from other types of character. However, it was still an easy task to cast off the persona at meal times along with the cloak, transforming it into a warm wrap or picnic blanket on which to chat and socialise with friends from all parts of the game around a hot drink and bread roll.

Reflections

My intentions in constructing this piece of costume were based on many requirements, but I was determined to create something specific to the identity and presentation of the character I would be playing. Although many parts of the cloak were scavenged from materials aimed at a mass market (in curtains), the outcome was in many ways unique, and the experience of producing the cloak distinctly coloured the wearing of it and behaviour while doing so. Making this item was only the beginning in my own journey of making various costumes for characters, as well as dressmaking more generally, and I have found this causes me to look at items of clothing for sale in a very different light. It is nearly impossible to purchase clothing that fits personal requirements of taste as well as practicality and uniqueness in everyday commercial settings, unless custom made. What effect does that have on my ‘performance’ of identity, or of my character (in the non-LARP sense) in the everyday? Does the limited range of options make it easier to identify those in the same social grouping as myself? Are we all likely to share the same frustrations with  ‘disposable’ mass produced fashion? And do the ‘unique’ items of clothing we adopt declare us idols and/or outcasts by default?

Reflections and comments welcome as always.

0 comments on “What is normal? Reflections on ‘Leaving Mundania’ Chapter 1 & 2”

What is normal? Reflections on ‘Leaving Mundania’ Chapter 1 & 2

Having read Lizzie Stark’s book on the US LARP scene, I was reflecting on the many everyday aspects of the LARP community that are represented there which I have also encountered. The book describes the experience of attending LARP for the first time, the connection between LARP and pen and paper roleplay games (also known as tabletop), and the central role that participation in the LARP community beyond the game itself holds in the life histories of some people. There is also an implicit discussion around LARPers defining themselves against a “normal” stereotype which is not always accepted by the “normal” people they encounter.

In these descriptions, LARP is taken seriously, and Lizzie makes a point of highlighting the skills and benefits that participants take from the activity into their lives. She highlights the close bonds of the community that in many cases substitute for difficult or dysfunctional family relations. One of the defining features of being a LARPer, however, seems to be the expectation that the activity is never taken seriously by outsiders. Or, in rare cases, is taken far too seriously and considered some sort of obsession. I once read an introduction to a collection of short stories by a well known horror writer who highlighted how the word ‘hobby’ was used to cover any number of peculiar and irrational obsessions. In this light it is fairly easy to extend the curiosity about LARP to many well known and accepted hobbies.

In previous posts I have compared LARP to football, not only because that is a hobby I have particular difficulty understanding myself, but also because it has a strong cultural currency. When meeting football fans I find it difficult to appreciate their arguments about the rules, their fascination with the tactics and talent of individual footballers, or the aggressive camaraderie that accompanies wearing the same scarf as everyone else. Yet these activities are very similar to those engaged in by LARPers. The ‘cultural currency’ and associated stereotyping, however, is not one of machismo and belligerence (as often associated with football fans), but instead often portrayed as one of unattractive friendless ‘nerds’ with dubious social skills, self-image problems and ‘fringe’ attitudes to prevailing social structures and politics. Football fans, then, are ‘super’normal, while LARPers are associated with a not-quite-normal ‘sub’class. Like any stereotype, these are insulting generalisations that apply to few in the hobby (though I don’t doubt there is some truth in any stereotype for some individuals). However, an important core aspect of the LARP community for many is its high tolerance of diversity. As such, people are potentially more likely to be open about matters they might otherwise keep hidden from public knowledge.

In Lizzie’s book, there is an incident where LARPers in a public space suspend their activities while some non-LARPers pass through the area, while the LARPers shout “look out, normals”, a label which the individuals concerned mildly object to. By contrast, I thought about occassions when I have encountered football fans in the street, roving groups of ‘lads’ chanting and singing at anyone they encounter, with one at the back of the group quietly apologising for his friends’ behaviour. LARP, it seems, makes a point of excluding (protecting?) outsiders, while football fandom attempts to recruit them. Personally, friends have accused me in the past of being something of a LARP ‘evangelist’, attempting (like the football fans) to ‘convert’ people I meet to the practice of the hobby, and I wonder at the role this distinction between ‘us’ and ‘others’ plays in reinforcing the stereotypes mentioned above. Further, the strength of the definition of those in the LARP community as “not normal” seems to be foundational to the community in some way.

One possible answer might be that the attempts made by the community to present themselves as “not normal” is the equivalent to the apologetic friend of the football fans. LARPers, much like football fans, are often causing disruption of order in public spaces by appearing in strange costumes, making conversation on outlandish topics or shouting rule-based effects at one another. It is possible that by shouting “suspend play! Time-freeze! Normals!” LARPers attempt to convey the message to general passers-by; “yes, we are doing something strange, sorry for the disruption.”

An important aspect of the instance in ‘Leaving Mundania,’ however, was that the so-called normals responded in kind; “we are not normals!” which rather upsets the attempts by the LARPers to distinguish strict boundaries around their gameplay. In many UK LARPs I participate in, over teh past ten years there has been a decrease in the use of ‘normal’ as a label used to define the community against, with scenarios such as the one Lizzie described pausing with the use of phrases such as “people passing”, “public”, or “mind the path”. This seems to imply the possibility of a growing awareness that people coming across a LARP event may have ‘not-quite-normal’ tendencies of their own, and even might want to ask where to go to buy a costume and join in.

As always, comments welcome below.