It’s often considered the misunderstood younger brother of tabletop gaming, a strange land of fake weapons, rock-paper-scissors and improv acting, all garbed up in strange attire and complex rules. Yet any given weekend, folks across the country gear up and head out to dress and act out the lives of characters they’ve created. I’m talking of course about live-action role-play, better known as Larp, and it’s come to the forefront as an oft under-appreciated hobby among gamers in the last few years. And while the world of Larp might intimidate some, one woman dove head-first into the costumes and characters to learn all about the hobby. Her name is Lizzie Stark and her research has made her one of the foremost voices in the exploration of LARP as both a gaming medium and a burgeoning art form. All of that research became the basis for her recently released book on Larp entitled Leaving Mundania.
What is immediately appealing about Leaving Mundania is the personal journey chronicled in the book. Rather than relying only on interviews with gamers and game designers/storytellers, Lizzie Stark immersed herself in the world of Larp, first by meeting the gamers involved in the NY/NJ area Larp scene and then by attending both local and international events.
“I first found out about Larp from a friend who worked on the literary journal Fringe with me,” explains Lizzie. “She’d found her roommates on the internet, and by chance, they turned out to be larpers. She told us about the strange implements they had in the house — padded weapons, body armor — and the interesting communal way they had of working out narrative differences, with rules and roleplay. Years later, when I decided to write a book, her descriptions of this intriguing hobby came back to me.”
The book certainly reflects that spirit of honest intrigue with Larp as a hobby. Where many explorations of larp feel oddly voyeuristic and removed, Leaving Mundania conveys a sense of earnest curiosity that helps the reader feel right at home in what might be very unfamiliar geek territory. The book retells the often very personal stories of many gamers, exploring their reasons for finding satisfaction with larp. That personal voice is then directly juxtaposed by Stark’s research into historic origins for live-action gaming as a medium. For example, one of the most interesting chapters explores the connection between the improv-gaming medium and the castle entertainment of the Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth I.
Lizzie admits that going into her research, she knew virtually nothing about the hobby. “I’d never been much for games in general, and I certainly knew nothing about how tabletop games like D&D — the ancestors of Larp — were played. I’ve always been interested in participatory culture, and I found it tremendously heartening that in this age of digital interaction some people were still taking the time to meet face to face and build both community and narratives.”
That Leaving Mundania is both well-written and well-researched is no question. The book is gaming scholarship at its best and most accessible, easy to read and heart-felt. Yet what makes this book truly stand out is the personal stories of the author herself. Where many authors might have kept to the sidelines looking into the unfamiliar geek world, Lizzie took her research one step further. After careful research at the Double Exposure gaming convention, she rolled up her sleeves and dove into the New Jersey-based fantasy live-action game known as Knight Realms. There, she faced down demons, goblins, lizard folk and all manner of political intrigues in character for over a year. It is this personal narrative that makes Leaving Mundania truly shine.
“It was a ton of fun to spend time with people doing something they loved to do,” says Stark. “That kind of joy can’t help but rub off. Although I found it difficult to get into game at first, in part due to the strangeness of acting medieval in a weird outfit, eventually I figured out who I am as a player and what I enjoy in game. Those realizations helped me find my place in the Larps I attended. And wherever I went, the community of gamers was incredibly welcoming, answering my many technical questions, kindly including me in plots, and lending me costuming.”
Along with exploring the United States Larp scene, Stark also turns a spotlight in Leaving Mundania on the work being done with Larp in the Nordic countries. There, Larp is considered less of a game and more of an art form on the level of interactive theater. “The international scene, particularly the Nordic Larp scene,” Stark says, “really shows that there is no one right way to do Larp — there’s mind-boggling diversity within the hobby in terms of the stories it’s able to tell. If you love Lord of the Rings and Larp to take a vacation from ordinary life, then a heavy game about the realities of life in a prison camp is probably not for you. If you love Waiting for Godot and like feeling quixotic, then maybe you’ll want to play a sentient piece of trash in a more existential-type story, rather than save the world in an orc costume. Doesn’t mean that Waiting for Godot is better than Lord of the Rings, though it might be better for you, depending on who you are.”
Since writing Leaving Mundania, Stark has become a great Larp supporter. “At this moment in time,” states Stark, “I definitely have roleplay fever, and the prescription seems to be more Larp.” She’s especially championed the cause of importing Nordic Larp traditions into the U.S. game scene but has admitted to meeting some uncertainty from American gamers. “I’ve really enjoyed bringing Nordic Larp and roleplaying techniques to some U.S. conventions, but the results have been mixed. I’ve made some converts... but I’ve also encountered some resistance, primarily because the style of play is just so different and new to an American audience, and sometimes, that newness comes with uncertainty.”
Whether or not Leaving Mundania helps to bridge the U.S./Nordic larp gap, it has certainly garnered lots of attention for the hobby. Both the book and Lizzie Stark were recently featured in a four-minute BBC piece shot at a Knight Realms game, while Stark herself has been educating about Larp in its various forms both in lectures or from her blog. No matter what comes next, Leaving Mundania and its author are an outstanding voice for Larp, tearing down misconceptions and building geek awareness the world over.
Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com