Sep 21 2011 5:05pm

LARP Insider: To LARP or Not to LARP & What the Hell is LARPing?

Everyone’s into something. Fantasy football. Scaling rock walls on weekends. Collecting action figures, comics, or rare Fabergé eggs. Me? In my free time I dress up as a green-skinned half-orc and run around bashing friends with modified plumbing equipment.

That’s right. I’m a lady who LARPs and I love it. LARPing (Live Action Role Playing) has a “weirdo” rep that’s kept it relatively below the radar since its inception in the 1970s. Now, as comics, gaming, anime, and other “nerdy” pursuits have become commonplace, and even sexy, LARPing is crossing over.

A LARP is a collective fantasy world similar to the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons — but in the flesh. Instead of a “Dungeon Master” verbally narrating the story, a Plot Committee writes and guides loose overarching storylines in-real-time and real locations. LARPs range from purely theatrical, to strictly combat and tournament style, to somewhere in between. Genres include science fiction, steampunk, zombie apocalypse, and more. My LARP of choice is medieval fantasy — elves, dwarves, half-races, assassins, mages, warriors... It’s like becoming a character out of Tolkien.

“For one weekend of each month, people travel great distances and escape… to become something else.” – Monster Camp (documentary, 2007)

If you’ve never heard of LARPing, you’re not alone. Until two recent documentaries Darkon (2006), and Monster Camp (2007) and feature film Role Models (2008), the whole concept was unheard of by most — including myself.

I gave LARPing a shot in January ‘09, but only after 6 months of nagging from my weekly Dungeons & Dragons gaming group.

“You play D&D.”


“And you make costumes...”


“You’re into community theater.”


“So why don’t you go with us to LAIRE?!”

“I dunno guys, LARPers are weeeird!”

“You hang out with us.”

“YOU’RE WEIRD! OK. Grrrrr. I’ll try it. Once.”

For my first LARP I played it safe and volunteered as an “NPC” (Non-Player Character) — basically, an extra. As an NPC, I was a pawn in an overarching storyline that the “PCs” (Player Characters — those who paid to play their own characters) could interact with. For three days, at a camp blanketed in snow, I was instructed by the Plot Committee to portray squealing goblins, undead skeletons, and scared townspeople crying for help.

In an episode of Tough Gig comedian Dara O’Briain gets thrown headfirst into LARP. Here a Plot Committee member pauses the game to tell players they are about to experience a “bad feeling as though someone has walked over your grave.” Watch the full scene above at 2:25 and check out the other two parts here.

On one “townswoman” assignment, I had to run to the Inn for help as the men of my village, including my “husband,” were being slaughtered by a Demon Tree. Doing my best “distraught damsel,” I beseeched some “heroes” (PCs) to help. Heroes, my butt! By the time they finished their coffee and got to the scene, it was too late.

Me: “How DARE you call yourselves HEROES!? People are DEAD because of your... YOUR COFFEE!”

Adventurer: “Mind your tongue, peasant! If you want revenge, learn how to fight!”

Outraged, my rampage continued all the way back to the Inn. Technically, my “NPC mission” was over, but I was getting into it! I spat at every “hero,” chewed out anyone who tried to comfort me, and got pretend-wasted on “dwarven ale” (root beer). Then, out of left-field, the cook slapped some sense into “me.”

“You listen to Mama!” She shook her wooden spoon. “If there’s anything left of your husband he will resurrect and come looking for you. Would he want you to sit around like a drunken fool, or pick yourself up and live?”

Stunned yet inspired, I “finished the scene,” and went to get a new role from the Plot Committee. Later that night it hit me — my character had fallen into my lap! A disillusioned widow with no one left — established conflict and resentment to boot. Perfect! I named her Dana, and have been developing her story for 3 years. Today she is Sergeant of the Dale Guard.

Dana keeps an eye out for an ambush.

“One of the best gifts you can give yourself is simply permission to go and pretend. As adults we watch kids... having a lot of fun, but somewhere along the way we suddenly say ‘no no no we can’t do that anymore!’ and that’s a shame.” – Monster Camp, 2007

Hook, line, and sinker. Now I have three different characters I alternate between — each an ongoing experiment. Dana, a serious brooding human, Lekar “Bone Smasher” the aforementioned half-orc, and Miska, a silly, playful Gypsy teenager. Their world is colorful, full of characters in all shapes, sizes and species. In real life, LARPers range from high schoolers to retirees, including parents who bring their children. LARPers are professional writers, actors, programmers, teachers, U.S. Army officers, make-up artists, costume designers, retail workers, “suits,” and maybe... you!

Michele Reznik is a marauder and messer who solemnly swears she’s up to no good! Graphic/web designer, social media writer/curator (Mediatronica, Kraken Rum, Hangar One Vodka), Public Relations/Event Production Associate (with Jeff Newelt AKA “JahFurry” for comics, film, tech, lit & music clients), Live Action Role Player, and hobbiest costumer. When she isn’t writing, designing, or LARPing, she’s usually catching up on comics and sci fi — one series at a time. You can find her at @DarthReznik on Twitter.

LARP photos courtesy of Michael Codis.

1. Eriberries
Wow, well written, funny and very insightful!
Joseph Kingsmill
2. JFKingsmill16
MysticRealms dot com was featured in a recent episode of The Marriage Ref. I spent alot of time there and had a ball. Nothing like a hundred people running through the woods fighting with bean bags and boffer weapons.
3. HandNik
Though LARPing is not for me, I certainly understand it's appeal. If I had the free time, I'd go tabletop any day of the week, though.
Ashley McGee
4. AshleyMcGee
I applaud you, even though my opinion of LARPing is colored by bad experiences. I got into LARPing briefly at the behest of our DM, but as we were in college, none of us had the money to persue it very far, and our committee was terrible, consisting of one guy who ran plots that called for little personal flare and kept us all on a tight leash; that was the wierdest part, considering we were given pretty much the run of things with our previous dungeon master. Even though role playing was fun, some of us wanted to graduate, so we gave it up.

People say LARPers are weird, and that's because some people get a little too into it and don't separate very well fiction from reality. I was treasurer for my competitive fencing team (that engrossed several of my DnD friends) for four years, and one year during the beginning of the semester we had a strange addition. Naturally, the pull of swordplay tends to attract some off-color folks. We had a very large influx of young students when Pirates of the Carribean 2 came in theaters. They didn't stay long when they found out we didn't dress up like pirates and only moved up and down a "strip" under Olypic-style regualtion. LARPers were common, but one got our attention quickly, as he strutted into the equipment room and emerged with his fencing gear, donned it with little class and proclaimed loudly enough for the whole group to hear that he knew how to handle himself, he knew how to fight with a rapier, broad sword, halberk and kitana. HE was a LARPer. Obviously, that was not well recieved among his fencing partners, and he was shocked to discover that no one would fence anyone that didn't even have the inclination to learn the rules of footwork, bladework and distance. No one appreciated good tactics when they saw it. No one wanted to fence him because they knew he would beat them. He spouted these things and much more until I took him aside and asked him why he felt like he was better than everyone when he was only just starting out. He told me that he wasn't just starting out, that he had been using more complicated weapons for years. He truly, honestly believed that his experiences LARPing had prepared him for competitive fencing. He was sorely disillusioned and eventually quit the team. His disillusionment might have also stemmed from the fact that he fancied himself particularly attractive and comported himself with so much vanity that no one would speak to him. Later he confessed to me that our style of fencing was too confined, unoriginal and repetitive, and that people who fenced competitvely were snobs and rich yuppies. Not so, considering most of us had to get sponsors or work to pay for our equipment.

I am glad that your experiences with LARPing have been enjoyable and creative. I was in theater briefly in high school, and I believe that LARPing, like DnD, increases creative thought, and with the right motivation, can be channeled into other areas of creativity, such as writing and art. I believe that its healthy for creative people to have an outlet, and I think LARPing, when taken seriously and accepted as fantasy, is one of those really great outlets.
Susan Davis
5. sue
In Canada, the Space Channel recently ran a pretty good documentary about our game: . I'm not sure if it's watchable from the US.
Kate Keith-Fitzgerald
6. ceitfianna
LARPing is one of my favorite types of roleplaying. In high school and college I was part of a Vampire: the Masquerade LARP, a small Changeling one and ran the Changeling LARP at my womans' college. When I lived abroad, the way I connected with the local gaming group was to play at their annual LARP. I did theater when I was younger and also am a storyteller so LARPing for me combines the best of all these worlds.

Sadly since I did start playing in high school, I dealt with sexism as there were few women and a large amount of drama but I miss it. LARPing is still one of my favorite forms of roleplaying.
7. Kayjayoh
Great article. I mostly LARPed in college and really miss it.

One comment though: it sets my teeth on edge when people play Gypsies as fantasy characters. Why is it still "ok" to play with the stereotypes of a marginalized and often persecuted ethnicity?
8. Nathan Hook
“If there’s anything left of your husband he will resurrect and come looking for you. Would he want you to sit around like a drunken fool, or pick yourself up and live?”

is a good example of why ressurrection is so bad for larp. All the drama is drained from that scene if death is not a possible.
9. Alan Bradford
@Nathan, while I agree with you in principle that the temporary nature of "death" in LARPs drains much of the drama from most scenarios, it's simply not practical to have player characters "die" permanently in game. What are they supposed to do, have a sheaf of alternative characters, or just go home?
10. A viewer
Alot of experience in larps comes from the people who run it-if they are not competant at that, the player probably won't have a good time.

But in my opinion, the largest part of the game comes from the people that play the game-the whole community. Without them, there really is no game, and if people cannot communicate and get along with each other, then the whole idea of playing a game when you interact with real people in real life and deal with situations together, your time at the larp will be on the lamer end.

Alot of larping has to do with imagination, and a persons own ability to make their own fun. If one person looks like they're having a blast running around in the woods, a couple of people miiiiiiight just wander over and see whats so fun. Then look at that! You have now 5 or 6 people goofing off together, self propelled fun!

Those who come to this game expecting to be entertained by what the game has to offer are fine, but you are also playing, and people may enjoy whatever YOU have to offer to.

In short, have an open mind, and ENJOY YOURSELF! Its a game after all. :)
11. Blackthorne
Great Job Michele!

A wise man once gave me this piece of knowledge,
We don't stop playing as we get old, we get old because we stop Playing!

Joe Marchese
Executive Director LAIRE
12. Kelvin 55
I myself have played LAIRE for just over 15 years, and of that I spent 7 playing a gypsie character. I can tell you that the depht and breath of the character was a very enjoyable 7 year run (and btw Nathan Hook though ressurection is possible, it is not guaranteed nor infinite. The particular character I'm referring to lived quite a full LARP life and stories are still told of his exploits, but he is no longer an active character having permenantly passed).

Although I can understand your frustration viewing this from the outside, I believe it is unfair for you to make it seem like the game is encouraging the marginalization of a people. Rom and Gypsie culture are as much a part of many fantasy settings (and in some cases the central story) and the flavor of the culture is strong enough to draw people in to the escapism of it all. As a matter of fact, in the case of myself and my friends it actually encouraged us to study the real culture in order to learn more about it. And in doing so, with only the basic overview that the game provides as initial exposure, we learned more about the real rom culture. This is another strong point of LARPing, in that it encourages those who partake to do more research in order to expand upon the game experience and the enjoyment of the community.
Susan Davis
13. sue
Nathan: we have resurrection... but it's an uncertain thing. After the first couple of times, it may not work, and there really is a fear of death involved. Especially at Halloween.

No, the res circle hasn't ruined our game. Characters die their final death fairly regularly.
Pirmin Schanne
14. Torvald_Nom
Alan Bradford: while I agree with you in principle that the temporary nature of "death" in LARPs drains much of the drama from most scenarios, it's simply not practical to have player characters "die" permanently in game. What are they supposed to do, have a sheaf of alternative characters, or just go home?

I have found that most PC deaths are down to players disrespecting threatening situations. Introducing permanent death induces them to use the term "yield", and respect the local lord a lot more (since he might be using a headsman).
15. Eugene R.
A good introduction and a wonderful story about your personal introduction to the joys of LARPing. I play table-top, mainly, but I do like to engage in the truly immersive experience of a LARP once in a while. Even more than with table-top RPGs, the element of Story is very strong within a LARP, so it becomes that much more important for players to learn how to keep the story progressing and not "block" out of fear of character defeat. A scene that has the other participants talking is a much more satisfying outcome than one in which a character escapes harm ... and also escapes notice. In one game, my character was the object of revenge by the daughter of a pirate that he had captured. She kept showing up at unexpected moments, cutting her initials into his doublet. I started wearing sheets of paper taped to my doublet with her initials on them, leading lots of players to inquiry what was happening. It all turned out wonderfully tragic, as I used the romance rules to have her fall in love with him.

And if Pirates of the Caribbean 2 brought out the fencer wannabes, I wonder (and shudder) at what Knights of Badassdom will do for (or to) LARPing. Well, at least it has Peter Dinklage.
Sky Thibedeau
16. SkylarkThibedeau
There are also Online LARP type Roleplaying simulations with Avatars if there are no LARPS close by. Places like Second Life and Third Rock have 'sims' that have open fantasy and scifi roleplaying along with Pop Culture D&D, Trek, Who, BSG, Star Wars, etc.

It's fun and you get to interact with people from all over the world. My favorite was the Battlestar Pacifica who's story (found here ) ended in December 2010.

I have seen some LARPs in the area but I think for now I'll confine my dressing up to the Local renaissance festival.
Jack Flynn
17. JackofMidworld
I have friends that LARP & I've playd tabletop RPGs (D&D, Mutants & Masterminds, Rifts, etc) for many, many years. One thing that I was introduced to a couple of summers ago was Murder Mystery dinners. It's limited to a couple of hours rather than a whole weekend (which meant more 'norms' were interested, outside of just 'gamers') and was a blast. I've played in three (two with mafia undertones & one placed at the beginning of The Gunslinger - I got to play the Man in Black, possibly the coolest roleplaying opportunity EVER) and helped write and run another (set in Arkham, MA , circa 1927) and it's definitely a cool way, imho, to get introduced to LARPing.
Jonathan Perrine
18. JonathanPerrine
I feel obligated to make a shout-out for a similar but different approach, the social LARPs like Mind's Eye Theatre for White-Wolf Games. Same emphasis on costumes and social gathering, with less focus on the physical aspect. I happen to like both, but I run MET in Tucson (Currently, Changeling: The Lost with about 15 players)
21. Eugene R.
@20: Not that there's anything WRONG with that ...
Irene Gallo
22. Irene
@20 deleted for being a bigot and a troll.
Joseph Kingsmill
24. JFKingsmill16
The death system is usually not the problem with most LARPs. I have heard far to many horror stories about the writers/story tellers of certain LARPs only writing stories or interacting with their friends and not including newbies and such. Luckily I've not had to deal with it personally but I have had a few friends who have and it can be very discouraging.

Also I know a few LARPs that have had problems with the influx of WoW inspired players who have no concept of role playing and just want to continually go on adventures/modules.
Eithne O'Hanlon
25. Ni_Anluain
I would love to LARP. I would LARP all day if I could (no wait I kinda do in my head - anyway!) but this is why I hate Ireland!! The ones that do happen always clash with something else I have on, or are for "serious" players only grrrr!!! just GGGRRRRR!!!

/end rant

I'll just have to move to the US! :-D
Katherine Olson
26. kayjayoh

So, I just discovered that there had been a reply. Better late than never...

"Although I can understand your frustration viewing this from the outside, I believe it is unfair for you to make it seem like the game is encouraging the marginalization of a people."

Outsider to LAIRE? Maybe. Outsider to LARPing/roleplaying/geekdom/person-who-pays-attention? Nope.

I am going to hold fast to my stance the playing "fantasy gypsie" characters is just as much in poor taste as it would be to play any other marginalized, real-world group as a fantasy stereotype. Yes, people do it all the time, and yes, you might even try to make it ok. Still not something I would allow in any game I GMed.
Katherine Olson
27. kayjayoh

More reading material, if you want to keep believing that cultural appropriation is somehow ok when *you* do it...
28. Aaron Pirnack
Great article! At the risk of sounding too self-promoting, my company Renaissance Adventures here in Boulder, CO has been running LARPs for kids age 6-16, and I really think our work is changing people's impression of LARPing. For one, we keep costuming to a minimum for the sake of "embarrassed teens," but also we put a huge emphasis on experiential learning through the LARP. Okay, and here's another self-promotion. We are running a Kickstarter project that I really wanted to share with you, given that you're such a well-read and inspiring LARP advocate. Check it out and email me back with your thoughts!
29. Hamish Mc
First off - love your stuff!!

Second of all, I'm a LARPer in Melbourne, Australia, with a group called Swordcraft. They began about a year ago with 3 people, and now have a community of over a thousand.
It's funny reading all these comments about how LARP is viewed. Where I am, it's more like: "Hey that actually sounds cool, do you mind if I come watch?"

Having said that, I would not call myself a nerd. I sing/play guitar in a band, I'm doing a B.A. Music Industry at Uni, I am a proffesional skier, and I am currently training for next years Battle of the Nations event.
The general public image of Swordcraft (by far the biggest LARP in Melbourne) is fairly neutral. We get a lot of people who will come past and be really interested, and a few have even joined in.

Most of the people in my team wouldn't be classified as the "nerd" type. Most play a physical sport, are tradies, and a few of us are in the army, and even the police force. LARPing seems to be reaching out to everybody, especially with Game of Thrones and The Hobbit floating around - fantasy is all up in everyone's shizz.
30. Matt Ward
LARP is lame, it is just misunderstood. I myself still don't truly understand but Im trying to get involved in the hobby. I am a huge medieval history fan/buff and my involvement with this and my Middle Ages history blog was the first place I came into contact with LARP. Initially it seemed a little strange but after reading a bit more about it and writing an article for my site it seems alot more interesting now. Im thinking of trying it out some time, or possibly SCA, havent decided yet. Great article. Cheers
31. Dixie
Larping is really fun and for larping we require larping swords.You can buy larp swords online, there are diffrent varities of larp swords available online..

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