In Defense of LARP

There was a little girl, who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead,
And when she was good, she was very, very good,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

There is a dismissive attitude towards LARPs in some sectors of the gaming community. I often get the feeling that LARPs are perceived as a sign of poor taste, and that LARPers are thought to be overly dramatic, and not “true” gamers.When I was working on Shelter in Place, I was often advised not to call it a LARP, because that might discourage people from buying the game.

“Call it a Party Game!” people would tell me.

“Say it’s an Improv game.” I’d be advised.

And it most certainly is those things. It is also a LARP – a Live Action Role Playing game.

PSEUDOPODMany people who hold this opinion do so because they have heard stereotypes about LARPs in the media, or they have played in a LARP and found the experience distasteful. I understand. I often think of the poem above when I think about LARPing, because in my experience, a good LARP is transcendent, but a bad LARP really is horrid. Playing a lot of tabletop games, run by a variety of game-masters has given me a good mental scale to calculate good and bad games.

In the very worst tabletop I’ve ever played, the game master was racist, and one of the players refused to look at me, and the game itself was tedious. Afterward, I walked out of that game and though to myself “Well, I wont be doing that again!” and had a weird story to tell about the afternoon.

After a bad LARP though? You really want to punch someone, or a wall, or yourself. Something about acting out the action with a bad group or GM can make a LARP a miserable experience. A bad tabletop can be laughed off, where a bad LARP can leave you seething.

LARPing also opens up a person to ridicule. When you tabletop, there is distance between yourself and the character. LARPing requires that you throw yourself into the character with abandon, and that can be embarrassing. Like an actor who throws themselves into a role, a good LARPer commits to the role, becoming the character.

SunsetThe rewards of an excellent LARP are astounding. A well constructed, well played LARP allows the player to walk in a characters shoes, to understand what it is to be strong or weak or feared. It lets the player know what it is like to defend your village against dragons, or rebel against an undead overlord. It lets you  experience betrayal without real world consequences. It gives you a space to play out being a scheming villain and a selfless hero. Where in tabletop, you imagine yourself somewhere, in LARP you go there. You wear the armor, you carry the sword, you run from the zombies.

LARP  showed me what it was like to be a leader. I am a softhearted person, and LARP allowed me to experience being ruthless without actually hurting anyone.

Most importantly, LARP helped me make my peace with death. I remember purposefully setting up the death of a character, and giving her the best darn story death I could think of.  Living beyond the death of a character has allowed me to come to some peace with death in my own life. Not that I am an incredible risk taker now, or that I am living without fear, but I live with the understanding that there is a good death, and a life well lived.

I understand why LARP might not be the preference of some gamers. There are games I don’t enjoy either. But the LARP deserves respect, because while it runs the risk of being terrible, it also has the chance for being transcendent.  LARP can teach us how to live a different life, and how to take those lessons back to our own lives.

Edit: Welcome Reddit! Thanks for coming to visit my article about LARP. I am a writer, photographer and game designer. You can read about me and my various projects on my about page.  I am the Creative Director for Galileo Games, who hired me after a successful collaboration publishing my game, Shelter in Place. Thanks for taking the time to read this article and visit my site. I’m happy to hear your comments, but agree or disagree, I do like to keep things civil around here. Thanks for stopping by!

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14 thoughts on “In Defense of LARP

  1. Thanks for writing this!

    Very good point – the level of investment in a LARP is a bit more than in tabletop so it can often frustrate gamers who try it for the first time (especially when it seems to them that they’re getting less done in a session than they would in tabletop). But the return you get on that investment can be truly awesome when it comes around. I think an important thing for people who are considering trying it to remember is that in general LARPers are the same kinds of folks you’d find playing a tabletop RPG.

  2. I totally agree with you, Jim. I think that LARP has a lot of rewards, but does take a greater investment to do well – or perhaps it’s just a different kind of investment.

  3. Great article. I would also argue that one of the key elements that polarizes a LARP into great or awful, compared to a tabletop that ranges from just fun to boring, is that with LARP you have a community. In a table top you may have as little as one player and probably never more than eight. With a LARP your numbers start around eight and go up and up. It only takes one bad apple to ruin the bunch, which is why you see so many bad LARPS. Yet, when it works and the community is positive the environment is as your article describes. Other forms of roleplay can’t compare.

  4. I’ve done my share of LARP mocking in the past, so let me ask here, in a place where it appears to be well-regarded: why do you think it is that people will mock a LARPer, but will not mock a person for appearing in amateur theater?

    It is simply the subject matter? Is it the fact that LARPers are doing it for their own pleasure while actors are doing it to entertain others? Is it that most acting is more realistic, without the presence of dragons or zombies, making LARPing more closely related to the kind of pretend games we played as children, and abandoned?

    Help me understand why I look down upon you, when I’m just fine pushing up my nerd glasses, taking a hearty swig of Mountain Dew, and demanding that everyone “roll initiative!”

  5. Steve, I agree with you that LARP has a much larger community in a game than a table-top, and that does create a different dynamic, both good and bad. I live in a large city, and I really like living here, but the more people that are together, the more good, and the more bad you get to see.

    Jason, I’m not sure why you look down on me. You seem to be the best person to answer that question.

    • I ask not to put you down, but more to get your opinion. You’ve been on the receiving end of derision about your activities, so you might have an insight that I don’t. And please don’t take it personally, as that I look down on you in particular. I merely admit to having poked fun at people who share that activity in the past, and wish some help in figuring out why I felt compelled to do so. I had hoped that my own self-deprecation at the end would help defuse any “us vs them” thinking…

      In thinking about it after I posted, I honestly have to wonder if it boils down to the fact that an RPG is inherently mental, an area in which I feel I have some gifts. While a LARP is inherently physical, and I’m a total couch potato who thinks that sports are for people who can’t think of anything better to do with their time. I do wonder if that isn’t the “line” that gets crossed.

      • I don’t know why people mock other people for having fun at any particular activity. I don’t play tennis, but I don’t mock people that enjoy it. If they find it fun, I think that’s great.

        For me, a LARP isn’t inherently physical. In the games I’ve played the focus has been wit, willpower, social agility and creativity. Of course, it does depend on the LARP you are playing. Many LARPs have different focuses. For some, the focus might be physical, others might be about solving puzzles, and a great many are about social interaction.

        I think it’s totally fine not to enjoy LARPing. If it’s not your thing, that’s cool.

  6. Jason,

    If I may, you might be judging them on appearances. If you don’t know the context of the game, the story, or the characters, a LARP can look very strange.

    Shakespeare in the park would also look strange, and you might have a similar reaction. But as soon as you heard a line you knew, your brain would pop with recognition and you would say “Ah! This is art – carry on.”

    LARP, it would appear, does not receive this same benefit of the doubt from you.

    • Do LARPs have audiences? If not, then that could well be the case. It would be the difference between “bunch of crazies in the park” versus “bunch of crazies in the park doing a play for an audience ah that fits my expectation…”

  7. Jason, sometimes it is a built-in mechanism to judge others. Many Americans fear an intangible diety, and some people find that amusing, I have always been one to jump at trying new things, and I am a very open person. I found that larp takes a very open person to enjoy. Another thing about LARP that perhaps has led to your ideals being what they are stems from a simpler, psychological issue. LARP is an abstract form of art and requires abstract thinking and ideas. Tabletop gaming, on the other hand, sees a predominantly mathematical and logical form of thinking. You will see more artists and artistic folk out at a larp, and you will see more science and mathematics folks rolling die.

    I enjoy both thoroughly, but as stated in the article, when a larp is done right it is magic (no pun intended). It almost becomes a way of life if it is a reoccurring event. Perhaps you could come out to an event somewhere and participate. I am sure any of us could point you in the direction of a good larp in your vicinity. ^_^

  8. Great article! (: I’m pretty new to the role playing thing, and I’ve only tried the tabletop D&D.
    As you put it, I’m sure Larp is great, but I figure it takes a lot more preparation than the tabletop version. My group is just not that committed I think. Get the costumes, a good place, act everything in real time… sounds like a real pain in the ass xD Would be great if it were easier though

  9. Well said, J.R; well said indeed.

    When I first heard about LARPs, I felt and thought that it was going to be the logical evolution of the tabletop RPG genre. But what I forgot about was the human tendency toward mixing real-life politics with fantasy. That alone, has caused more LARP troupes/groups to go up in flames than any other that I have seen.

    I’ve done everything from “coffee-klatch LARPS” to “boffer-sword games (my personal favorite)” and if there are problems, they always end up being the same problems; people taking things in game as personal attacks against their real-life being. And those problems are the ones that result in the death of the game. Bad storytellers; they can be improved with patience and sage advice by both players and other concerned parties. Problem players (outside of the issue described); education and fellowship can turn the worst player into the star of your troupe, providing that the player wants to get better. All other problems outside of those two are just environmental issues that the community can easily address with a simple and concerted effort.

    But a troupe has to do everything they can to keep internal politics under control, if not eliminate them altogether from their game or sure as Kool-aid is sweet, it will threaten to tear their game apart. And it has been stuff like this in my humble opinion, that has contributed to the bad rap that the LARP genre has among other gamers.

    I have seen so many curious gamers become instantly jaded because they ended up getting caught up in some internal power struggle that should have been taken out of game, but instead used the game itself as a indiscriminate weapon of mass distraction. And because of this, what should have been an enlightening experience with “all-out” roleplaying was turned into a sad and sorry waste of an evening and (in some cases) money.

    Personally, I love LARPs. I’m so much of a ham that I’ll go into a game wearing cloves and pineapples (LOL). But what I love more than playing is storytelling and prop-building. With that being said, I don’t participate in LARP events that much anymore. The sense of wonder has been all but drained out of me in regards to the genre. Some friends of mine are planning something new and I was betwixt and between regarding my participation. But reading your article has swayed my feelings toward participating.

    For that, I have to thank you.

    Sorry to ramble…again, great article.

  10. Hello

    First time visitor, first time poster, long time larper.

    Thanks for this article, JR. We are talking about it (all positive) amongst the advisory council of LARP Alliance, a non-profit larp advocacy and education group.

    I have started to make larp my vocation and career; it has gone beyond hobby for me, so please keep that in mind as I attempt to answer Jason’s question.

    I think there are many, many reasons that people look down on larp. But first, let’s be clear that we are talking about the attitude toward larp here in America. It’s different in Germany, the U.K. Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Australia, Japan, Poland, etc. All those countries have larp communities, some old, some young. I can’t speak with first hand experience, but they, too, have or did have their share of dismissal.

    So, here in the United States, here’s a handful of reasons to make fun of larp:

    1. The person doesn’t understand what’s going on. As H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

    When people don’t understand things, I think their natural human reaction is to attack it, from a mild to a severe degree, e.g., ignoring or outright hating. I think this is also why we have racism, sexism, and most other evils in the world: dude don’t know what it’s like to walk in other person’s shoes.

    2. Some may say that Larpers take a fun hobby game way too seriously. If you’re a fan of tabletop, and like to wear jeans and a t-shirt in your friend’s living room eating pizza for a few hours, the thought of spending a weekend camping, spending time or money making a costume, memorizing rules and character background, and having to interact, sometimes on a very deep personal level, with what are strangers at first, can seem extremely daunting. Plus, many of the foam weapon combat larps charge a fee to play (just to cover expenses of campsite rental, props, etc., usually) can be limiting in and of itself: I ran a one-shot western larp at a ranch in Malibu, and charged players $20 (that included dinner of BBQ chicken, steak, baked beans, cornbread, salad, corn, pie, watermelon, and drinks). I had a few people who didn’t play, solely because of the price point. Granted, this was last century, pre-Great Recession, but still.
    There is a marked cost to most (not all) larps, often in time, energy, and money, and many people just can’t see the use or value in doing that. To see others doing it may seem to them as wasteful and shameful. “How dare you have the ability to go camping once a week when I can barely pinch off eight hours to play D&D once a month on Sunday!”

    3. Larp does not record well in fixed form. Repetition will never, ever, yield the same results, even if the same game, same place, same characters, same players, etc.. Thus, every attempt to explain or show larp, in any kind of medium will fail in its depiction of what it going on. Because larp is enjoyed (or not) by the individual players, and there can be players that both loved and hated the same event. Since larpers aren’t performing for the viewing audience, the viewing audience is often “WTF??? What’s going on? I don’t understand,” leading back to point #1. The infamous “Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt!” video of Brandon Boucher, for example, looks totally lame on YouTube presented “as is”. But for Brandon at that moment, throwing packets at a monster, it may have been one of the most thrilling experiences of his life (I hope it wasn’t, and I don’t think it was). But that’s just one person.

    So unless and until someone experiences that magic of larp for themselves, it’s just a bunch of goofy nerds running around with elf ears.

    4. The content of larp is very, very often mistaken for the FORM of larp, even amongst larpers. This is something I fight against almost every day. When people say larp to someone, they either don’t know what it means, or they think it’s fantasy foam combat. But that’s just the content for a much larger ancient, global art form. My analogy is thus: “Fantasy foam combat campaigns are to larp as super heroes are to comic books.”

    Think of the most popular, most colorful, and you have Batman or NERO, say. But like graphic novels and sequential art, there’s much more to larp than faeires, elves, and foam swords.

    Therefore, if someone doesn’t like the fantasy genre, they might say they don’t like larp because they mistakenly believe that all larp is fantasy-genre.

    5. Many humans have to feel that they are better than someone else, especially groups of people. Hence, racism. In the nerd world, most of us faced persecution of some sort for many years, and the natural tendency is to find someone worse off than you to make fun of. Because if those above you would also attack those below you, you weren’t being attacked. I think many gamer nerds thus picked larpers to be the low baboon in the tribal hierarchy.

    6. Many larpers are very seclusive, often because of the persecution seen in #5. Very few are willing to admit that they participate in live action role playing, for fear of insult or attack. Thus they withdraw to play in secluded parks, and are very hesitant to reach out to others until they are very comfortable with the other person. I speculate that few larpers have told their parents, non-larp friends, or co-workers about what they do. Thus the secretive nature might make other people think larpers are doing something bad, or a cult, or hiding something for a reason, and, hence, are bad.

    7. Larp is the art of play-pretend for personal enjoyment or fulfillment. That is usually considered a childish or child-like endeavor, and adults who still practice it are thus considered immature. Gamers have dominated culture over the last few years; video games especially. There’s no shame in saying you played Rock Band or Madden or Call of Duty on Saturday night. But to say you pretended to be a vampire prince in a friend’s old Victorian home? “What, are you a 13-year girl or something?”

    I can probably think of a few more, but I took enough of your time and space. I won’t respond to these points here unless you want me to, but I have explanations and solutions to all of them.

    If anyone wants to know more about larp, or what and how I think about it, I wrote an essay called “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing”, and it’s available via Creative Commons here: http://mysite.verizon.net/res6l997/understandinglarp.pdf

    (direct PDF link, it’s free)

    Finally, I agree with the Guest that posted above: try a larp in your area. You might be surprised how much you enjoy it. If not, you will at least sorta kinda maybe understand it a bit, and in understanding, not be afraid of it or those who participate in it.

    Thanks for reading, cheers!

    Aaron Vanek

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