LARPing: an Intro for Tabletop Gamers
In addition to being a twenty-two-year veteran of tabletop gaming, I’ve also been involved in live-action roleplaying for… hmm, looks like nineteen years next month. Like roleplaying games of every kind, LARPing is getting ever greater coverage in the media, and every year the tone shifts a little more away from “look at these freaks” to “this looks like fun,” (for God’s sake, gaming has gone theatrical – never mind that the playwright is an old friend of mine) so the purpose of this article is to present several different styles of live-action roleplaying, specifically to experienced tabletop gamers. It’s (probably) the first article in a series.
It is just as difficult to make definite statements about the kinds of LARPing that are out there as it is to define genres of tabletop gaming, and for all the same reasons. With that said:
- Campaign-style boffer is the nearest and dearest to my heart, and has the most in common with D&D in its overall approach. This style involves long-term stories (dozens or scores of events over multiple years) and ongoing characters.
- Combat sim style reduces emphasis on story and roleplay, in exchange for a greater emphasis on action and a nearly sports-like approach. There aren’t a lot of clear tabletop gaming parallels here. If you love combat in tabletop games for its own sake, but you’ve always wanted more physical immediacy, this might be for you.
- Campaign-style salon includes, most famously, Mind’s Eye Theater and the Camarilla, though those are far from the only examples. Events tend to be shorter – often a single evening – but more frequent. For obvious reasons, this has the most in common with World of Darkness games.
- Short-run salon includes Call of Cthulhu one-shot events and the like. These often emphasize stories of horror or tragedy – so mold your expectations on your character not surviving the game, in the most memorable way possible.
- Nordic is especially hard to describe cogently, as its adherents vehemently reject classification. In general, it strives toward character immersion, with little if any focus on game mechanics, competition, or stories longer than 1-3 play sessions. Nordic LARPing has the most in common with experimental, indie tabletop gaming.
- The Society for Creative Anachronism is yet another thing; I won’t attempt to describe it in much detail here, as (from what I understand) most participants decline to describe it as a game. It has some elements of combat sim style, and others of campaign-style boffer games, but it pre-dates all of them.
(If I left out your favorite style, I apologize; the riot act is available for a detailed reading in the comments below.)
Now, it’s likely that you know just from that breakdown which styles are most likely to be for you, thanks to the magic of gross oversimplification. I’m going to talk a bit about the strengths of each, as well as what LARPing does well that tabletop can’t do, and vice versa. LARP design has been deeply informed by tabletop gaming, going back to its earliest days.
This is the kind of game that most of the movies about LARPing have been loosely based on. “Boffer” here signifies the padding on weapons, usually made from latex, pipe insulation foam, or camping pads. Here as in gaming as a whole, fantasy is king (my favorite is Dust to Dust, because it’s the one I run), but there are a lot of other offerings as well – science fiction, steampunk, westerns, zombie horror, and so on. For reasons of physical implementation challenges, some genres are much more difficult to handle convincingly than others, such as space opera or superheroes.
In addition to padded weapons, there may be packet effects – that is, spells or other effects delivered with a beanbag or a small bundle of birdseed in cloth. This often looks ridiculous if you’re observing the game as an outsider, but once you’re in the midst of it, your brain learns almost immediately to ignore the physical appearance of the packets and simply react to the effects. “Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt!” has become a joke about boffer LARPers, but to us they just need more creative taglines, and maybe a verbal component to their spells.
A brief jargon note: A tagline is the verbal means of communicating an in-game effect. Depending on the game, taglines communicate spell effects, damage flavors and amounts, and so on. In D&D, you might inform the DM that you’ve done seventeen fire damage with a flame tongue sword; in most boffer LARPs, you swing your weapon and, as you swing, call “seventeen fire” or “seventeen flaming.”
As with tabletop games, some campaigns have more emphasis on combat, or puzzles, or any other kind of gameplay than others. If it’s your first time LARPing and you don’t yet know what you like, make sure you try everything that you can (within the bounds of any physical limitations you may have). In many parts of the North America, Europe, and elsewhere, potential players have a wealth of options; in others, even a driving range of four to six hours wouldn’t get you to many more games.
My knowledge of games outside the American South is limited, to say nothing of games outside the Anglosphere. On the other hand, if you’re reading this, you probably have an internet handy!
The things that make campaign-style boffer LARPing great are a lot of the same things that make tabletop games fun, but (usually) outdoors and in much larger groups. There’s action, suspense, challenging puzzles, intrigue, fresh air, a huge number of steps on your FitBit (I average 15-20K at events), and all of the camaraderie of a tabletop gaming group.
Even LARPing for free is more expensive than tabletop gaming, what with the fuel and food costs, and the maintenance costs of basic costuming and weapons. For many games, though, full-time volunteering – that is, NPCing – is a way to play the game and minimize costs. Most games provide costuming and weaponry to full-time volunteers, to say nothing of immense gratitude.
Many campaign-style boffer LARPs support extensive non-combat gameplay, focusing on puzzles, social interaction, crafting, and the like; I have known many games in which strictly non-combatant characters were among the most influential. If you have physical constraints that would keep you from engaging in combat with padded weapons, talk to the game’s organizers to see how much gameplay support you can expect.
Campaign-style boffer LARPs range from high-single-digits numbers of players, usually staged in someone’s back yard, to high-four-digits numbers of players – though this is common only in Europe, to my knowledge. The majority of American boffer LARPs that I’ve heard of have somewhere between 30 and 120 players, including the game’s staff members. The large numbers of players make incredibly complex interactions possible, such as huge field battles with dozens, hundreds, or thousands on each side; or political negotiations with multiple competing factions (whether PC or NPC) all speaking at once. It’s hard (not impossible, but hard) for tabletop GMs to portray two NPCs in a conversation with the PCs. In a LARP, it’s just a matter of delivering briefings for each NPC in the scene.
In addition to more players, there are also more staff members running the game and presenting the world. In general, tabletop games have zero, one, or at most two GMs (with the caveat that zero GMs can easily be reframed as “everyone is the GM”); most LARPs of more than ten or so players have three or more staff members handling writing, setup, and presentation. It’s more than “design by committee” – it’s a story with multiple clear voices and perspectives. Some GMs’ styles aren’t going to suit your tastes – but there’s probably someone else who creates the perfect content for you.
The dice don’t fail you in this kind of game. Your own skills may fail, and it’s certainly possible to run into players who aren’t quite obeying the letter or the spirit of the rules, but there’s a great sense of succeeding or failing on your own awesomeness rather than the whims of the Dice Gods.
Costumes are fun. They can be expensive, but it’s fun to shop at Renaissance Festivals and Etsy, or to make your own costuming, so that you can really look the part. As long as no one starts criticizing the costumes and props of less privileged players, groups of people in costume are a great spectacle unto themselves.
There’s a lot of time to socialize in-character and enjoy the quieter parts of your character’s life, leading to an immersive experience that one doesn’t usually see in tabletop games. Rather than being boring, it creates contrast and pathos to see what your character is like when not under immediate threat to life and limb. There may still be murder-hobos, but with an in-character sense of community and family to give context to actions.
On the other hand, no matter how skilled they are, the game-runners can’t make absolutely anything happen at a moment’s notice the way a tabletop GM can. Things take time to set up, props have to be built or written, and NPCs need to get into costume and makeup, and for that matter some ideas are simply impractical from first principles. You want to build a fifty-foot-high wall around the village where the game takes place? For the overwhelming majority of games, that’s not possible, and even if it were the venue’s owners (such as the state park system) would not be best pleased. For that matter, unless you’re attending one of the lucky few games that does have a castle… there’s not going to be a castle. Every venue has its limitations, and generally the game-runners have adapted to those limits.
Some kinds of effects just don’t work well. Very long range attacks don’t work, because the power required to send a projectile that distance isn’t safe to use on, you know, your friends. Area-effect attacks comparable to D&D’s fireball don’t work; area effects need an obvious and indisputable boundary, and you can’t generate those on the fly.
The downside of a large group of players is even games that don’t emphasize PvP have elements of competition and conflict between players. If there’s one Mystic Orb of Noonah that falls into PC hands and only one person can wield it at a time, it might not be you or your team. Trust that something else will come along, and keep your envy in check.
Combat Sim Style
Wikipedia lists Dagorhir as the first LARP, and it is still going strong today, along with other games in this category like Amtgard. It has a lot in common with campaign-style boffer games – relatively similar weapon design, costumes, combat, state parks… but it is a different kind of game. I don’t say that pejoratively – go forth and enjoy what you enjoy! I don’t have personal experience here, though. My impression is that the combat safety rules allow greater physical contact, in part because the weapon-safety rules require much thicker padding, including padding on shields.
This is a great option if you want to focus on physical competition as an element of gameplay. (And, of course, you can play one game for raw physical competitiveness and another for story and immersion. People can like more than one thing!)
Salon-style gaming is an ideal approach to campaign-style LARPing for people who aren’t interested in or physically capable of the rigors of boffer combat, but it appeals to a much wider audience as well – people who can only spare one evening at a time rather than a whole weekend, people who love intricate and bloodthirsty politics (especially PvP politics), and people who love player-generated story and don’t enjoy story created by the game’s staff. Such games still have NPCs and plot, but it’s greatly de-emphasized compared to most campaign-style boffer games.
Another great strength of some campaign-style salon games (and some boffer games, for that matter) is that your character may be transferable to other chapters of the game, in other parts of the country. You might have hundreds or thousands of fellow players to interact with, and it’s really cool to be part of a story that touches so many people.
Because players aren’t wielding physical weapons (even padded ones), salon-style gaming has options for venues that no boffer LARP could even consider. It isn’t necessarily obvious to onlookers that a game is even taking place, if costumes are not terribly outlandish. You might play somewhere close to where you live, rather than driving a few hours to get to a game venue. You’ll almost certainly play somewhere climate-controlled.
Many of the limitations I described for campaign-style boffer games apply here, but some of them are relaxed by the conventions of the genre. Storyboarding events that can’t be reasonably presented is more common. Salon-style combat does involve randomizing components, such as rock-paper-scissors or playing cards, so a turn-based combat resolution opens up the possibility of area-effect powers, for example.
For a more extended experience – when you want to be in-character for more than an evening at a time – there are convention events, which may draw hundreds of players in themselves. Some convention events are limited-term stories, and so technically belong in a different category of this article.
Without the campaign elements of the previous category, short-run salon LARPing emphasizes the emotional journey of a single event. The distinction between short-run salon style and Nordic LARPing is sometimes quite a thin hair, but in general the games I’m calling “short-run salon” don’t emphasize allegory, self-discovery, or the transformative experience of LARPing. It’s more likely to involve “does the Old One stir in his slumber and devour us all?”
This is sometimes true in campaign-style salon games, but especially in short-run salon games, it’s common to see pre-generated characters written by the game organizers, rather than player-driven character creation. The good side of this – as with pregens in a one-shot tabletop game – is that you know your abilities have a good chance to matter, you have pre-written connections to other characters, and you’re provided with a detailed briefing for context. That is to say, you can really hit the ground running with a pre-generated character, rather than the slow build of developing the character’s quirks, relationships, and power. It’s common for pre-generated characters to be of widely differing power levels – a king and a dirt-farmer, perhaps. At worst, you have one to three events with a character you don’t exactly love, and some significant roleplaying challenges. Since you don’t get to keep playing the character afterward, though, you can completely commit to the character’s decisions, without worrying too much about out-of-game consequences like “not having a character to play” or “starting over as a beginning character.”
As with campaign-style salon games, such events can go for luxurious venues that you would want to visit for the sake of being there, such as bed-and-breakfast establishments or a mountain retreat. There’s also a great tradition of lavish props and extraordinary production values – but there’s often a tradeoff in event prices. On the other hand, you might be able to afford for a one-shot game what you couldn’t for a longer commitment.
As I’ve said, trying to describe Nordic LARPing necessarily excludes things that self-identify as Nordic. Ideally, someone more experienced in this field will come along and make good use of the Comments field, below. In general, Nordic LARPs tend toward single-session games, often played as part of a convention. They pursue highly experimental topics and implementations, focusing on character immersion and ideals of transformation through play.
(Despite the name, things that I would call campaign-style boffer games are also common in Norway, Sweden, and Finland. I have no real clue where those more versed in the style would draw the lines.)
As far as I know, Nordic games put much less emphasis on costuming and props, and much more on shaping the overall experience and meta-techniques – maybe the ending is foreordained, for example, and it’s the responsibility of each player to work creatively toward that end.
Nordic LARP has become a hugely influential in American gaming communities, especially in the convention circuit. Here too, the internet is a better resource for further information than this article is intended to be. If you want an experimental, unusual experience, though, give a Nordic LARP a try.
The Society for Creative Anachronism
Listed last only because it isn’t a game, the SCA was already past its first decade when Dagorhir became the first formal LARP. The SCA offers a great depth of history lessons, real-life crafting lessons, combat, and interaction, but there’s technically no “story.” This activity, verging on a way of life, appeals to many – some of whom are past or current LARPers also. If there’s too much fantasy game in your medieval fantasy game, look for a local chapter of the SCA.
I hope that these brief descriptions and comparisons have intrigued you, O tabletop gamers who have not yet passed the threshold into live-action roleplaying. If you’re able to travel to the Atlanta, Georgia, area, Dust to Dust’s next event is September 18th-20th. There are an incredible number and variety of great games out there, so even if you can’t make it to my game, find one local to you and give it a try!