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LARP: Live Action & Real Problems

LARP: An Overview

by Jason Hosler
Dec 01,2004


LARP: Live Action & Real Problems

by Jason Hosler, Raging Gargoyle Games

LARP: An Overview

When most people are asked to describe role playing they will talk about rulebooks and miniatures, brave heroes and imaginary monsters, and sitting around a table with friends. Most gamers have only experienced this segment of role playing. There is a larger scale of things though, and that involves the source of numerous horrible tales (and a least one poorly done movie) of gamers gone awry: Live Action Role Playing. Before we can really go into depth on what Live Action Role Playing (LARP) is about, and how a game can be set up and run/played, it is necessary to define exactly what LARP is.

Live Action Role Playing encompasses all those games where the players, instead of just sitting at a table describing what their characters want to do, actually dress up as their characters and act out their adventures. The degree to which the dressing and realism of the actions are taken is a matter of taste, but if the play of the game involves actual physical representation of the action of the story, it's a good bet your in a LARP.

LARPing has been portrayed poorly in almost every form of media and is the example held up by all those who would seek to persecute this fine hobby. >From Tom Hanks going insane by acting out his character's abilities in Mazes & Monsters to the infamous Dark Dungeons, acting out your role playing games has always been portrayed as a sure sign that you are on the road to madness. This is not necessarily the case. It has often been my experience that it can be extremely difficult to get into the mindset of your character in a tabletop game. Even the most evocative description of the snarling snogbeast charging down on your beloved character will not cause you to actually feel fear of the creature. You may fear for the survival of your character, but you know that the danger is all safely in your imagination. In LARP, however, the in-game danger is actually there and in your face.

A Comparison

Different LARP systems approach this simulation differently. There are two major types of LARPs, theatrical and simulation. The major distinction between the two is the degree of contact between the players, especially in combat. Theatrical LARPs (such as Dark ConFrontation© and Mind's Eye Theater©) as a general rule are strictly "no contact". Everything in the game is simulated under strict rules, from combat to skills to item creation. These rules almost universally rely on each participant in the action resolving their successes or failures and then comparing them to their opponent. Whether this is done by coin flips, rock-paper-scissors, or stat comparisons the end result is the same. The players announce what they are doing, make the appropriate contest to see if they are successful, and then compare their success in performing the action to their opponent's success in resisting the action. At no time during a fight is a attack actually made with the intent to strike the other player. Simulation LARPs (such as Fortune's Landing© or NERO©) typically require the player to act out as much of his/her actions as possible. This includes combat. Whereas with theatrical larps, there are systems in place to allow you to simulate combat and resolve it, in most simulation larps (also known as "boffer" larps) combat is acted out with the use of padded weapons. This requires that if you are going to play a fighter-type, you actually be able to be somewhat competent with a weapon.

Each style of LARP is suited to different styles of play and different locations. Similarly each has it's own strengths and weaknesses. Theatrical LARPs are ideal for indoor play or playing in an area heavily populated with "mundanes". Due to their more subdued combat resolution rules they are easier to pull off in say, a crowded hotel. Also, due to the enforcement of non-physical confrontation, most theatrical LARPs I've participated in lead to a more covert and shady play style. Thusly it is ideal for settings such as Vampire© and Dark Con© where subtly and obfuscation are the watchwords.

Simulation LARPs are better played outdoors, or at least in large spaces. Because of the requirement for physical combat, it has been my experience that combats are less likely to occur, but when they do they are far more entertaining and noticeable that a corresponding combat in theatrical style play. I mean it is just plain difficult to overlook a couple guys whacking at each other with padded swords. They are also better, I think, at invoking that truly visceral reaction to a dangerous situation. Someone telling you that a monster just jumped out at you in dark is much less frightening then you actually walking down a dark forest path and a "monster" (in mask and snarling) leaping out at you. I've never made a player scream when running a table top game, but I've heard grown men scream like a little girl when caught off guard in a LARP. Of course, not everyone likes the admittedly higher potential of personal injury that simulation LARPs entail.

The actual role-playing varies little between the two types of LARPs, but differs dramatically between the LARP and table-top games. The physical nature of the LARP tends to add emphasis to role-playing. I find that by requiring players to act out their characters actions, it makes it much easier for players to get into and maintain character. Also, at least in a well-run LARP, there will be multiple plotlines running concurrent to each other. In most table-top games, while there may be multiple story arcs that have been laid out, usually only one can be worked on at a time. In a LARP, since you typically have a much larger player base at each game than in a table-top session, multiple story arcs will have to be worked on simultaneously since not all of your PCs are involved in the same groups and cliques. It is this necessity of multiple simultaneous arcs that result in the need to run the game by committee, a topic I will go into in much greater depth in a later column.


As you may have guessed, I have a personal bias towards "boffer" LARPs. Most of the topics that I will cover in this column relate to those types of games, however a fair amount of the information, especially the stuff about organizing the game and dealing with licenses and plot committees are applicable to any type of LARP.

The author is the owner and Creative Director of Fortune's Landing, a simulation style LARP based in central Kentucky.

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