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Live Wires: Dispatches From the Live-Action Front


Scott Lynch
July 24, 2000
The Grand Failure of Total Freeform Gaming, and the Need for Responsibility

Before the initial release of their Masquerade live-action rules in the early 90s, reliable scuttlebutt indicates that White Wolf expected them to be little more than an interesting variation for troupes of ordinary size, probably no more than eight people. In actuality, what they soon witnessed was the birth of the urban mega-LARP. Players, hardly content with apartment-sized gatherings, populated entire cities with vampires and other supernatural creatures. Many reveled in the freedoms live-action offered, playing their characters at restaurants and crowded events, surrounded by hundreds or thousands of mundanes who remained blissfully unaware that they were secretly being watched by shadowy factions of pretenders pretending to be pretenders. Some pushed the boundaries even further- why stay hemmed in by any limits at all?

Entire college campuses became Masquerade zones, and players could be in-character, lives permitting, at any time over the course of an entire weekend. Some games even expanded so that players who were truly blessed with a surplus of time could play every night of the week. If your anarch coterie wanted to meet the Princes messenger outside a bar, you literally hopped into your cars and drove over to a real bar for a real meeting. Exciting and heady stuff. But there was yet another degree of freedom- freedom from any form of supervision or geographic boundary whatsoever.

I was swept up in LARP in early 1995 under just these circumstances. Bootleg rules using the Vampire setting with truncated foam-sword combat had circulated Southeastern Minnesota and Southwestern Wisconsin for months. No storytellers. No coordinators. Participation was simple and informal. Most cities in the area harbored at least one coterie of players, who fought night after night over the rights to back alleys, abandoned parks, and designated hot spots. At the height of the games short life, almost two hundred participants played from Minneapolis to the banks of the St. Croix River. It was Total Freeform Gaming- rules by popular consent. No boundaries. No overseers. No limits. It was the most exciting thing that I, at 16, had ever heard about. Night after night, I became a vengeful, righteous werewolf, dedicated to wiping every blood-sucking and city-loving vampire I could find off the face of Mother Earth. Kreegah! Bundolo!

It was also perhaps the most dangerous thing I ever did, dangerous to myself and to the gaming hobby. Looking back upon those months, the nostalgia I feel is coldly balanced by my increasing astonishment at all the things that could have gone profoundly wrong, but never did. Five years later I desire nothing more than to defend my reputation and my hobby from the irresponsibility of people just like myself, once upon a time. Let me take you back to 1995, to where it all began for me, and let me illustrate my point with what we call a war story. My very first war story.

In an earlier column I described the beginning of my live-action play- sans rules, sans communication with anyone beyond our five-person "Werewolf Pack." We stalked our hometown woods, practiced maneuvers, and eventually yearned for something a bit more proactive. Our tale begins...

March, 1995: After a month and a half of fruitlessly patrolling the local woods, the Sept of the Wind, five proud werewolf warriors, finally purchased a clue. Supplied with an actual copy of the game rules and some scribbled notes on the location of some suspected vampires, our intrepid heroes donned their black face paint, survivalist clothing, and bad attitudes, and roared across the state line in moms Chevy Corsica to scour the dreaded woods of Hudson, Wisconsins Prospect Park- noted vampire turf!

April, 1995: After a week and a half of fruitlessly patrolling Prospect Park for some pretty damned elusive vampires, the Sept of the Wind, five proud werewolf warriors, finally spotted its prey. Dampened spirits were immediately rekindled by the sight of three wraith-pale girls, dressed all in black, drifting silently across the moon-lit park toward the deserted playground.

Of course! Pale skin! Dark clothes! How could they be anything but night-fiends, enemies of all we held dear? The Sept of the Wind, five young men strong of body but not quite right in the head, crept forward in battle formation. It was a glorious assault. I'll remember it to my dying day. Five black shadows, low to the ground, silent as the heart of a glacier, encircled the foolish (suspected) bloodsuckers in a matter of moments. Our prey never sensed the lupine death that awaited them a mere twenty feet away. When our grand maneuver was completed, I, playing Bakhtosh Game-Weaver, Speaker of the Pack, rose from the shadows and crooked a gleaming (foam) claw at the (alleged) hellspawn and uttered the now-legendary challenge: TAKE US TO YOUR MASTERS, LEECH BITCH!

After an appropriately dramatic silence, the response we received was, of course, not that of three disciplined and combat-ready young vampires. It was that of three rightfully confused and frightened non-gaming women who had just been surrounded in an abandoned park at night by five large, freakishly-painted men dressed all in black. As they bolted for the relative safety of distant streetlamps, a shouted chorus of desperate apologies followed them, but to no avail. In short order, the Sept of the Wind, five scared young hooligans, dove for the cover of the All-Concealing Shadows and waited as pretty red and blue lights filled the park for the next hour or so. That, friends, was our first field encounter with anything other than trees, frostbite, and disused barbed wire.

Well, some might say that sixteen-year-olds have always been fountains of mischief- just look at the evidence. Ding Dong Ditch. Burning dog feces in paper bags. Hacking Pentagon web servers. But this was different, and I would argue that our position was different. We were ambassadors for a widespread hobby, representatives of the gaming culture. Live-action roleplaying was and is highly misunderstood and demonized by a certain reactionary segment of the population, and it certainly didn't need our help to further frighten people.

I shake my head in amusement at our antics, but also in amazement that in six months of running around in the winter woods, the worst injury the game had to report was a solitary sprained ankle. A few arrests were made, but all the truly awful behavior that could have landed us and our fellow players in serious trouble was, thanks to fate and swift young feet, mostly concealed from outsiders. What we have here, readers, is an earnest case of Please do as I say, not as I did.

It is now 2000, and live-action gaming has evolved. Cities that harbor several large gaming troupes tend to see them mingle, to exchange players and locations, to build larger, better, more secure games. If our hobby is to have a future, that security must be at the forefront of our minds. We live in a litigious, trigger-happy culture that's eager to condemn, blame, and sue the eccentric. The evolution of LARP, I would argue, must not be toward fewer limits, and weaker boundaries, but toward collective safety, group accountability, and widespread respectability.

How can this be brought about?

-First, dont shun legal authorities asking appropriate questions about your game- flood them with information and contacts. Be friendly with them. Build a reserve of goodwill and understanding that will deflect rumors and hearsay. Make the first moves to initiate contact and alleviate any fears they might have. If you're behaving in the proper fashion, there are laws and procedures that will work to your advantage when the unenlightened intrude on your fun.

-Dont tolerate disrespect for the law among your gaming troupe. Gaming is not an extension of rioting and partying, not an excuse for graffiti, vandalism, and public inebriation. One foolish action can lead to years of trouble for everyone involved, and for thousands not involved. Dont even give it a chance to happen.

-Dont shy away from the defense of this safe, respectable, and highly enjoyable form of entertainment. You heard me- dont put up with rumors and ignorant criticism. We live in a society where obsessive hero-worship of millionaire sports icons is accepted, even applauded, and yet the creativity and audacity of live-action gamers sees them branded as strange and threatening. Demand respect for your personal tastes- it might not start a worldwide revolution, but it's the right thing to do. And it usually feels pretty good.

-Most importantly, dont weaken the efforts of those who seek to increase player security, comfort, and order within their games. They, and we, are trying to build a better, safer niche for ourselves in a relatively hostile world. It is our duty, if we want this hobby to blossom, we have to take the initiative in representing and protecting it in an adult fashion. For these are not childrens games, but something quite special and worthy of our very best efforts.

I descend from my soapbox now, a little sadder and wiser than I was when I entered this hobby. I hope I havent frightened you, but perhaps that little tinge you feel inside your chest is because you, like me, hate the injustices which the popular tastes of our times sometimes force us to endure. It is an injustice of opinion which we ourselves must not compound upon. So please dont dress up as werewolves and chase innocent women in city parks. Dont engage in back-alley foam sword brawls on other peoples property. Most of all, look out for the safety and welfare of your fellow live-action gamers. Our collective prosperity, as well as our individual freedom, hinges upon our own acceptance of responsibility for our actions.

Game well, game often, and please dont eat the mundanes. They never appreciate it.


Scott L

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