All about my strangest hobby and some things to consider as a LARP player.
I’d recently started writing a blog post about our trip to Drachenfest, a German LARP festival, and I found myself facing the question of how to properly explain what LARP actually is. Since LARP is a relatively obscure fantasy thing, I decided to write a separate “what is LARP?” post here, to hopefully give you at least the basic idea of what kind of new geek weirdness I’m talking about now + it comes with pretty pictures of me dressed in various character costumes.
The acronym LARP stands for live-action-role-play, which essentially means that you transform into and play a character, usually in a fictional (fantasy) setting. It is somewhat similar to the tabletop game D&D (Dungeons & Dragons), where each person plays a character defined by a set of stats, which goes on missions or quests in a fantasy world guided by the DM, i.e. the narrator of the game. However, in D&D the players sit around the table and talk themselves through the many adventures their characters participate in, while in LARP the players actively become the characters and enact everything that happens to them during the game.
During LARP games or events, you dress up in the costume of your character and play as them, which is fully based on improvisation and reacting to the fictional setting and story that you find yourself in, which is why environment plays a huge role in LARP. It’s a bit hard to pretend to be a medieval lady, an elf or a vampire, if everyone around you is dressed in jeans or talking on their smart phones. That’s why LARP events are usually held in more private spaces, specially decorated to represent the fictional world that the characters are supposed to be in. It is also why all events require at least some basic costume standards, in order to facilitate immersion, i.e. really getting into the mindset of your character and into the game itself.
Similarly, since you have to act out whatever your character is up to, there is a general guideline to “play only what you can show”, which does not relate only to your actual abilities and how you look (i.e. not playing a dwarf when you’re as tall as a basketball player – although it can be done!), but also to using in-game props and trying to make whatever you are doing believable for the other players. Additionally, there are no DMs or narrators during LARP events, so noone is telling you what is going on or indirectly pointing out what you should do. Your character really needs to be a person and do something – although it might seem daunting at first, there are no wrong actions in LARP, the only bad option is inaction. Of course there are always official GMs (Game Masters) present, which keep the story going, act as referees and make sure that everyone follows the rules, and NPCs (non-personal characters put there to support the story), but they cannot be everywhere at once, so you have to actively participate as a player. In contrast with D&D, you are not the star of your own campaign, but rather a part of the story, which will be as boring or as exciting as you help make it.
As you can probably tell from the above, LARP is quite similar to historical reenactment in terms of dressing up and behaving in a certain way, dictated by the world the event is taking place in. However, reenactment events are usually meant to recreate an event exactly the way it happened (i.e. battle reenactments), with a fixed outcome, or made to show people what life looked like back in the day (i.e. medieval fairs or Roman camps). In contrast, LARPs are not meant to be a show and are organised in such a way, that individual characters matter and have something to do. Your character gets to go on quests, learn new in-game or actual skills, interact with other characters, solve mysteries, organise riots or rituals, cook food etc., kind of like in real life, except not.
Additionally, reenactments are constrained by actual historical periods, while LARP events offer a bit more freedom and additional fantasy elements, such as magic, alchemy or sci-fi tech, when it comes to costumes and character creation. In terms of setting and time periods, there is a huge variety of LARP events, such as medieval fantasy or Viking, post-apocalyptic, zombie, vampire, Harry Potter-ish, Witcher-ish, pirate, steam punk, futuristic or sci-fi, Star trek, Star Wars and many other LARPs, so there is something for everyone and if you can think of it, it probably exists (the links given are just examples, there are many more). The events can last from several hours in one day to multiple days – LARP festivals.
In short, LARP is more like an improvisational theatre, where everyone is dressed in costumes, but there’s no audience and the players are performing for each other. All players co-create the story and determine how it is going to go with their in-game actions, so there are no true winners or losers, as the act of playing is its own reward. Of course characters develop and progress over time, and they can have in-game ambitions, win tournaments or political struggles etc., depending on the story and the setting, but LARP by itself is never meant to be a competition, but rather an experience.
That can be a bit hard to grasp for beginners, however, a good LARPer follows the guideline of “play to lose” and doesn’t always try to be the best possible superhero. The game is more interesting for everyone, if the characters are diverse and more than 1D stereotypes of heroes/bad guys/pretty girlie elves/grumpy dwarves/sexy vampires etc., and if even the most badass army general has some kind of a weakness. It’s like in movies or books, the best ones are the ones where the characters are relatable as people, have actual personalities and manage to surprise you sometimes, instead of being predictable black and white stereotypes. The encounters between players are more fun when they are playing well-made characters and that is where the “game being its own reward” thing comes in. However, all this does take a bit of practice, particularly if you are playing a character whose personality is very far from your own, as you have to control your natural reactions and really think of what they would do in the situation (you can always decide to play as yourself, though).
There are of course many different styles of LARPing, focused on different aspects of the experience, as they can be either role-play, fighting or quest oriented etc. Since I’m more into the role-play-and-developing-your-character part of LARP than into the bashing-your-brains-out-with-foam-weapons part, I prefer the German and Nordic style of LARPing. They are geared more towards role-play, believable interactions/reactions and unobtrusive rules, instead of mechanic-heavy, complicated rules and counting points kind of LARPs. But, to each their own. You can find quality combat-heavy events with real weapons such as medieval or Viking fighting and tournaments organised by the SCA, where they are usually quite good at historical accuracy as well, but most of LARP events use foam weapons for safety. There are LARP events organised more like fight training with foam weaponry (usually known as boffer fighting) or even based on paintball or nerf gun shooting.
So, as you can see, the term LARP is an umbrella term for running around in costumes and pretending to be an imaginary character. Is it weird? Yes, absolutely, but it is also insanely fun! I admit, it’s not something I’d ever put in my CV as an engineer, as even just being a geek still has a bit of stigma attached to it, even though it is slowly becoming a part of the mainstream culture, but it is a creative way to spend your time and it will likely even teach you some new life skills. I’ve learned how to make and sew my own costumes and become a bit more outdoorsy than before. I’ve also been a GM for our local group in Slovenia for a few years now, which has improved my organising and emergency time management skills too.
It is worth noting, that my view of what LARP is, is a bit tinged by my organising experience, but like everything else in life, everyone experiences LARPing differently, so I say give it a go if it sounds interesting to you and decide for yourself. If you’d like to know more about it, particularly in terms of in depth definitions and explanations, larping.org has a pretty informative series of posts trying to accurately describe the phenomenon of LARP here. They are probably a pretty good place for all your other questions about LARP as well, but you can always ask me more in the comments. 🙂
How to get started?
LARPing is quite popular in most of Europe, Asia, Australia and Northern America by now, so if you live in one of these countries it’s highly likely that there’s an active LARP group in your area. Try to find them online or ask around for costumed weirdos running through the woods every so often and don’t be afraid to reach out, as it’s always nice to be weird together. Otherwise, there are several international events happening around the world every year, so if you really want to try, that’s always an option, although it can be a bit expensive to get started completely by yourself.
All photos taken during LARP Belesija events.
P.S.: Here’s my post about an international LARP festival in Germany.