LARP, the true story

An event from the perspective of a participant

Written by David Dylan

LARP (Live Action Role Playing) is an often misunderstood hobby. People see pictures or movies online, often at semi-humorous websites that make a living ridiculing others or stealing material from actually funny sites, and it all seems as if we geeks just call each other up some day, get together in a park and start playing pretend. Or as if it's all about bashing each other while pretending to be knights. Sadly, LARPers themselves are sometimes lured in front of the camera's, and "to keep things simple for the folks at home" enticed to dumb it all down to just those two things, at best.

I've always said; LARP cannot be understood in soundbytes or five second clips, so keep the cameras away. But perhaps it can be understood by those with enough attention span to read an article.

So here goes, how does LARP work, from the perspective of a participant.

It all starts months in advance, with discussions through forums, e-mail and MSN. People want to know whether you will be there next time, and whether you will still be playing the same persona.

I play Toh Busy, the pacifist samurai. Toh ran away from home when he was fifteen to escape his father who wanted him to join the cult of the General, a militaristic religion. He subsequently joined the cult of the Sun, a hippy-like cult which worships the sun, dances and sings a lot. (Off key.)

On the right, Toh Busy

We try to arrange a room together so we can set ourselves up as religion. (It's a 24-hour game, so it helps to sleep surrounded by friends.) We share the new religious songs (usually adapted popular songs) and in general get worked up about the upcoming event.

Of course, costumes need to be mended, rides to the location arranged, and so on.

And then the day rolls around... After the usual frenzied packing we pile into the ancient Mazda my friend drives, bringing towels for the spots where his roof leaks, and set off for some remote spot where we get to indulge in our hobby for three days.

After four hours, interpuncted by stops at a McDonalds (because there was no Burger King on the route) we arrive. We find our beds and proceed to litter the floor with our assorted gear, riding boots, armour, trays of energy drinks, bags of assorted power bars and chocolate, the Canon EOS 500D and selected lenses, and, for some reason, a sleeping bag.

After changing into my semi-asian outfit, which took me three months of evenings to make, I line up with the rest of us freaks to get checked in. I suffer the traditional ribbing, mostly aimed at my horned helmet. (Horny Guy jokes, moo-ing... we are a very original bunch.)

I check in, arguing (and winning) about whether my riding boots count as hard, or soft leather.My sword was made by Palnatoke, so I pass the safety check with flying colours, unlike some unlucky souls in front of me in the line who see their very cool, but also just not safe enough, armaments ruthlessly transferred to the "unsafe" pile.

Then we wait... after a while a u-haul type truck drives up and we pile in to be taken to a remote spot of the game area, from where we will walk back, as our official arrival at whatever town we adventurers will find ourselves in.

On our trek we meet several short encounters to help us get into the plot for that event. We find a corpse. No clue what this signifies, so we walk on. Further on we meet some orks who are Sun-cultus zealots. I'm not worried, I display my sun-pendant prominently. Some of us of differing faiths have a few scary moments, though.

At last we make it to the inn. Now all the talking begins.

When we see LARP on TV or in other media, it's usually about the battles. This, admittedly, provides the most spectacular imagery. It's usually also the smaller and/or the less serious groups who whore themselves out to the media. It's usually those in the fringes who seem to want to get into the limelight to talk about whatever it is they are in the fringes of. You hardly never see real hackers, actual goth, true D/s lifestylers, etc. on TV. You do get the crazies. Better TV, I guess, and more of a need to be "hardcore".

It is one of the reasons I don't watch TV. As a media professional I know too well how cameras are strategically aimed at the most extreme scenes.

LARP is about playing your persona. Sometimes this means battle. Most of the time this means talking to people, drinking a few beers (or mead), finding out where to get the items you need for some quest, negotiating with other factions and just, in general, having fun being someone other than yourself for a weekend.

Toh Busy, my persona, has two goals: attaining priesthood in the cult of the Sun and learning the skill "law" so he can become a judge. He has the skills "tracking" and "guiding" because he bought those as starting skills. He also learned the skill "leatherworking", so he's a trapper and survives by guiding others through the forest and repairing armour. Sometimes he also sells small leather items his nephew sends him from their extensive leather export business back "home". (or, in other words, I make between events.)

So, Toh starts by asking around for people who can teach him law. Unfortunately those are hard to find, and he won't find one this event.

Soon his duties as Sun worshipper call him, though. It turns out this town is where our prophet Domela Troelstra was murdered and there is a shrine in the woods that needs tending.

Walking the path to the wood alone he meets a group of General Cultists looking for bandits who have turned invisible to escape them. I clearly see the extras who are making the gesture for "I'm invisible" and Toh Busy sees nothing. I walk on, thanking my lucky stars I had been held up by someone who wanted to discuss the merits of local leather over Haribdian (my homeland) buffalo skins. (or, off-game: wanted to know how I made my armour.) A few minutes sooner and I would have walked straight into an ambush, that much was clear.

I'm a lvl 3 character, wearing sturdy leather, but six bandits would have meant character death, and in LARP there are no spawn points. Death means building a new character and starting over. At level 0. Level 2 means playing for two events, to reach three, three more, and so on. So that would have been a waste of five events of effort put into this persona.

LARP-ers fighting rat-men
A fight with some rat-men. The brainbucket and the armour saved my hide here.

Walking on, I soon spot something wrong. The shrine! It is empty! Our holy altar to the prophet has been stolen!

I hurry back to the inn, where I find one of my brothers in faith, and tell him about the missing relic. He then grins sheepishly. Uh, yeah, he'd heard the three orphan sisters talking about moving the shrine to a safe spot.

I erupt in a diatribe about his honour, his ancestry, his place in our religion and the general stupidity of allowing some children to remove one of the holiest of holies.

We round up another brother and head back, determined to retrieve the altar before the orks find out and we'd have a full-fledged religious war on our hands. They are sun worshippers, like us, but it was pretty clear that they were to our hippy-like happy group what Bin Laden is to Hamid who runs the local 7-11.

En-route we meet some distraught people who tell us that the orphan sisters have been captured by some hopping mad orks. So we rush on, and indeed, find the altar back in place, and a few girls on the ground, covered by kindling. Orks dancing around them, ready to burn the heretics.

I push Augustus, the brother who knew about the girls' plans and who didn't stop them, between the girls and the ork getting ready to light the pyre. His face speaks volumes of fear for his persona. Like me, he'd put a lot of effort into his costume and general character, and those orks have big clubs...

"They are children, you should have known better, offer your life in trade for theirs!"

He didn't. So I pull him aside and stride towards the head ork. I repeat the message, adding that since Augustus was responsible for the girls, and he was my fellow worshipper I was responsible for him, I offer my own life and throw myself flat on the ground, inwardly dreading the cleaning bill for the 100% cotton kimono and pure wool riding pants I wore under it.

More LARP-ers
A bad guy...

The extra playing the head ork saves the situation by having a tantrum at me and then dismissing all of us.

We then head back to the inn, where we find Deca Al Dente, our priest, and explain the situation.

It's almost dinner time, so we set up our table and have our food brought to us. (One advantage of being part of a cult is that you take your meals in the group and usually get served your food, rather than standing in line.) Between the (restaurant-type good) main course and the huge desert I spot Kirian, the orphan's adopted father, and drag him to our table, where I make him apologize for his girls.

The ork priest, who sat down with us, and Deca, however feel that our cult has a problem, and after polishing off desert we set up a cult meeting.

We sit and debate until deep in the night. The orphans, three young women expertly and very amusingly playing teens, claim only the best of intentions, concocting story after story. The ork chief, an experienced actor who ?as extra-- has provided us with many a great encounter, takes up the opposite position. Other cult members all chime in, and of course Augustus is called on his failing to stop the theft.

We fail to resolve the situation however, but the orks are placated.

I head for the inn, where I spend some time pursuing my various personal interests, and then I settle down for a few drinks with my friends and that one girl I've been lusting after for the past four events or so. Alas, her boyfriend joins us, too.

After a while armour comes off. This is a rule of LARP; Couch + drinks + armour = the inn gets attacked. So I find myself half-drunkenly staggering to the door, with my sword in my hand and my head sticking out of the arm-hole of my armour.After that, I'm sorry to admit, things are a blur. But my persona survived. Me getting way too drunk on some excellent Danish mead and talking just that bit too loudly about my feelings for previously mentioned girl means my ego is as bruised as my arms, but such is LARP. Good fun, with good friends, good food and drink.

I have walked on, and slept in, riding boots for three days, rolled around on the forest floor, ran from assailants, made new friends, lusted after the impossible girl and met many, many, old friends.My face is glowing from the sun, and the fresh air.

I have used skills I have learned in real life, like leatherworking, sowing, sword-fighting... I have researched foreign cultures to flesh out my characters, I even took up a history major.

So I find myself at home, with a glass of Glenn Talloch -neat-, and writing up this piece, and wondering how geeky my hobby is... very geeky, I fear. But something that gets you out in the outdoors using nature as it was intended, as well as stimulates one intellectually, and lets you learn a fair bit about old time crafts... well, it's definitely not of the cliche'd overweight and anti-social sort of geek.

In fact, I don't think I could name any hobby where I met more fit and socially successful people, from doctors to CEO's. And yes, a great many IT folks.

Facebook and my e-mail inbox starts to buzz already with anticipation for the next event... January there's Darkcity, the Horror event...

LARP, in a nutshell

LARP, or Live Action Role Playing, is a hobby derived from RPG games such as Dungeons and Dragons. In essence it's an RPG where people go out into the woods to play "live". People make up a persona, or character, and from "time-in" to "time-out will 'act' this persona.

Extras: The extras are participants who aid the game organisers by peroviding plot-seeds and info to the players. Thingk about MMORPG's where there's computer generated people standing around where you can get info, buy armour, and so on. They fulfil that role, only it's far more involved since there's no script, players could just about do anything. So the extras need to be as involved in their role as the players.

Weapons: LARP uses a system of one-hit-is-one-point. You know you've lost a hitpoint because you feel the sword landing on your limb. So the weapons need to be very safe. On the other hand, people put a lot of effort into their costumes, so they need to look good too. These days there are many companies providing professionally made foam weapons. Not all of those meet the stringent safety standards though, and all LARP groups have slightly different rules. A good, safe, bet is to buy from Palnatoke.

Yet more LARP-ers
A good sword may run you $ 100,- or so, but it's a solid investment.

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