Don’t Touch or I’ll Sue: American larp as national metaphor

This is the talk I gave at Solmukohta 2012, Gen Con 2012, and Wyrd Con 2012 on American larp as emblematic of US national values. It is based on my essay in States of Play(pdf), the 2012 Knutebook, as well as on some older blog posts about tall tales and US larp, and physical contact and litigiousness in US larp. It’s a little rough — talking points to jog my memory during the speeches, but I think the bulk of the substance is there.

Introduction

This talk was inspired by my 2011 visit to Knudepunkt, an art larp convention that rotates its way around the Nordic capitals. As I watched, tried, and learned about their way of larping, it struck me as really Nordic, in the stereotypical sense of the word – communal in important ways.

That got me thinking that if Nordic larp is Nordic, maybe American larp is American.

I had the idea that Nordic folk took roleplaying – which originated in America – and evolved it to fit their local culture. Perhaps the reason that American larp hasn’t changed greatly since its inception is because it already had that quintessential American-ness about it.

So I went looking for American-ness – surely a slippery quality — in one of the games that I followed extensively for Leaving Mundania.

I looked at Americanness in larp in two ways.

  •  The effect that American values have on larp
  •  The American values that arise out of larp

*Disclaimer: The US is a huge and diverse country, with many different larp scenes – I can’t presume to speak for all of them, and I don’t presume to think that the idea of Americanness that I’m using is the only sort of Americanness. I did the bulk of my research on the Eastern seaboard between DC and Boston.

 

Knight Realms

Knight Realms – I didn’t want to focus on generalities, so I decided to examine a specific larp, Knight Realms, which is a boffer campaign typical of US boffer campaigns.

  • Based in New Jersey
  • Has been running since 1997, meeting about once per month
  • Events typically last a weekend, and take place at a Boy Scout or Girl Scout campground in the tri-state area.
  • It’s well attended – 150-200 people regularly show up for events.
  • The setting is medieval fantasy, and it uses boffers – padded weapons – for combat.
  • Most plots revolve around NPCs, non-player-characters, who attack or offer puzzles. Player versus player action is permitted but not encouraged.
  • It’s got a ton of rules – more than 166 web pages worth.

US Culture’s Influence on Knight Realms

How American Culture affects Knight Realms on a structural level:

  • Litigiousness. Lawsuits, and legal liability, real or threatened, are a facet of life in the US. (explain attractive nuisance tort). And they create incentives to run larp as a business.
    • Litigiousness creates a high financial bar
      • KR takes out liability insurance, which costs money.
  • Litigiousness means that someone must be legally liable for stuff that might go wrong:
    • So it makes sense to incorporate larp, so that the corporation and not the person is liable.
  • So our cultural litigiousness makes running larp expensive, and encourages organizers to incorporate themselves. In short, cultural litigiousness creates an incentive for organizers to run their games as businesses.

 Litigiousness affects the stories told in game:

  • implied no-touching rule, which means that some themes, like say, love, aren’t typically played. This is true at KR. If players want to play romance among each other, they can, but it’s not something that’s part of the game plot.

Running larp as a business affects the game dynamics at KR via the following:

  • Death systems
    • Players sink time and money into their characters in the form of admission fees, event attendance, and costumes. From a business point of view, if a character permanently dies, that represents a player’s lost investment in the game. So at Knight Realms there’s a forgiving death system – everyone is allowed five deaths.
  • Inheritance from one character to another.
    • If you retire a character (or the character dies the last death), the investment isn’t toally lost – you can role over a percentage of skillpoints to your new character. This means that new characters aren’t always low level – keeps the social structure rigid
  • No end of the world plots
    • They’re a staple of high-fantasy literature, but in order for the game to be interesting, the players must have the chance to succeed or fail at any given plot. If the players fail at a world-ending plot, the game has effectively written itself out of existence, and that’s not in the business model.

 An anti-realist tradition in larp:

We’ve got an anti-realist tradition. If you want realism – go find some reenactors, because in general, you won’t find clearly consistent worlds with hard historical underpinnings in larp.

  • The Setting: Disneyland style; atmosphere as pastiche.
    • Knight Realms, while set in the 1200s, isn’t historically accurate in setting. It’s really a pastiche of medieval fantasy movies, myth, and history, and because of that, you’ll see many different sorts of dress among the characters. The owner, James C. Kimball, spends a lot of effort trying to make things look medieval, trying to evoke the medieval era without necessarily replicating the medieval era.
    • I’ve got a theory about this phenomenon: Maybe this is because we don’t live alongside our  history the way, for example, that Europe does. Therefore, larps set in older time periods necessarily require suspension of disbelief.
    • This is echoed by the game reality. because things have to go back to normal between games, there’s not much institutional memory within campaign larps.
  • Tendency to play hyperbolic characters – mighty heroes, not ordinary people…even though we’re a democratic country that deifies folksiness (eg Joe the Plumber) The dream is to be an exceptional person who will achieve extraordinary goals – someone who can get ahead.
    • This hyperbole is written into the KR rules put it, “Every PC in this game is a ‘hero’ in the Knight Realms world. They are above and beyond the normal man.”
    • The irony at Knight Realms, of course, is that everyone is exceptional by definition – we’re all heroes above mortal man; it’s a new form of equality, and one that by design can’t satisfy the desire to be the center of attention.
    • I see it as fitting in with the only national myths we have; the tall tales from the frontier, which tell of exceptional people doing exceptional things – Pecos Bill riding a giant cat fish down the Rio Grande – Paul Bunyon clearing redwood forests with a sweep of his hand, and so on.
    • Liberal-minded anxiety also affects how we play Racism and classism – we come from a country where “anyone can grow up to be president,” as the rhetoric goes, a country that prides itself on offering equality and freedom and upward mobility. So racism and classism make us profoundly uncomfortable
  • Racism
    • The US has a fraught relationship with race and racial dress up. Playing race produces liberal minded anxiety.
    • It’s more common to see larps with green people and blue people than with black, white, and Hispanic people. This is certainly true at KR.
    • When racism is played at KR – and it’s written into some racial descriptions – it typically isn’t played, except among friends. Or when it is played, we get a Mary Sue type plot to the effect of “it’s not right to make the Khitanians live on one side of town.” In other words, KR plays racial stuff that we settled in the 1960s – most games don’t touch current issues of racism because they are seen as too explosive, or because they’re too complex.
  • Class culture.
    • In the US, we like to think that class isn’t a thing. The idea of upward mobility, regardless of class, is linked into how we construct our national identity. Even when we’re pretending to live in medieval times, it’s hard to overcome the idea that we’re all equal.
    • Travance, the barony where Knight Realms takes place, is ruled by nobility. Real medieval nobility inherited their titles, but at Knight Realms, it’s a meritocracy – nobility gain titles through acts of bravery and by proving, out of game, that they are responsible enough to handle a role important to the plot.

How Knight Realms Reflects US Cultural Values

So that’s the background for the rest of the talk. I wanted to talk a bit in general about some cultural forces that shape larp in the US, and how those elements effect KR directly. Now, I’m going to talk more in depth about how the elaborate rules systems of Knight Realms, and games like it, reflect American values.

We love us some rags to riches stories in America. We love stories about people who start out at the bottom of the social order and head to the top in one generation. And we pride ourselves of being a nation in which upward mobility is possible, where hard work and the protestant work ethic pay off, because everyone starts on an equal playing field. That’s the rhetoric, at least.

Excessive rules help create a similar atmosphere in game.

 Why do we have rules?

  • Emma Wieslander says organizers introduce rules whenever they want player and character to experience something differently. E.g. death. (see Beyond Role and Play)
  • That may be a fine description for rules-light Nordic games. But it doesn’t explain why Knight Realms has rules for stuff like reading, which isn’t physically impossible or unsafe to other participants.
  • I think that the excessive amount of rules at games like Knight Realms create equality.Take the literacy skill at KR. In real life, my literacy skills are pretty awesome – I’ve got some graduate degrees. And a book! But in game, I’m no different from a 14-year-old high schooler playing a warrior until my character uses a point to obtain literacy. In effect, the literacy mechanic deprives me of my educational advantage. It means that the 14-year-old and I start the game on equal footing. I’d connect this to an American vision of equality

The American Vision of Equality

  • We think if “equality” as equality of opportunity, not equality of access or outcome.
    • The 14th Amendment of our Constitution says, for example, that the law must treat people equally. The law’s equal treatment of citizens, this supposed lack of structural boundaries to success is supposed to give every citizen the much-vaunted equal playing field. If we’re all beginning at the same starting point, then we succeed or fail by virtue of how much effort we put in.
    • So Knight Realms’ rules ostensibly evoke equality of opportunity – the large amount of rules create an equal playing field, they try to promote the meritocracy of the game, which is something players are very concerned about.

So the rules create an equal playing field. But elaborate numeric systems also imply leveling up.

  • The rules also imply leveling up – if I have +5 strength, I want to know when I’ll get +6 strength.
  •  At KR, they keep track of levels in the form of build(explain how build works, that it’s the raw stuff of character creation that you can spend by investing in stats, skills, or professions. For every 10 build you invest, you gain one level)
  •  You can get extra build through:
    • paying more
    • doing service for the game
    • excellent roleplay.
  • However, because KR doles out build for event attendances, characters will inexorably gain power and influence whether they take advantage of the extras or not.

In other words, KR characters follow the path of the ideal American immigrant.

The Rags To Riches Myth

The Emma Lazerus poem on the statue of liberty says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The implication is that we’ll take them in, and through the magic of capitalism and democracy, (and if they’re good immigrants who follow the rules) make them rich and awesome over the course of one or more generations. That’s the American dream – to work hard and get ahead.

Tied into this is our rags to riches myth – we love to hear about people who go from immigrant to famous in one generation. Eg Obama, Sotamayor, Jay-Z.

So games like KR mirror the path of the ideal immigrant. When we enter a new game, we leave behind our everyday worries, our community relationships, and our very conception of self—in favor of taking on a new identity and new position within the game world. If the rules strip players of their natural abilities, then new characters—the huddling masses immigrating to a new, fantastical world—enter the game virtually naked, without many health points, skills, or protections. Over time, players who follow the rules – making real-life investments of time (event attendance), money (costuming and admission fees), and talent gain influence in game, their road to power conveniently quantified by level.

Achieving the American dream isn’t easy in real life. It requires hard work, ingenuity, old-fashioned gumption, and no small amount of luck – how many people are still living in the projects for every Jay-Z or Sonya Sotomayor? However, at Knight Realms, power, wealth and influence inevitably accrue to players who simply show up; leveling up is the perfected, democratized version of the American dream in which everyone is exceptional enough to “make it.”

Conclusion

So in conclusion – America’s culture of litigiousness impacts game play both structurally – creating incentives for larps to run as businesses, which in turn impacts storylines through forgiving death mechanics, continuous plots, and lack of touching.

America’s complex relationship with history and cultural rhetoric of equality mean that accuracy in setting, race and class aren’t motivating goals.

Finally, elaborate rules systems enforce in-game equality among players and enforce a certain kind of meritocracy in which hard workers get ahead, recreating the American rags-to-riches trope.

Leaving Mundania Hits the BBC!

The BBC ran an awesome video spot on larp and Leaving Mundania last night. The reporters came out to a Knight Realms event with me, where we talked larp, gamer shame, and the famous avant-garde larp scene of the Nordic countries. A great four-minute video that introduces the hobby (and my book!) to a mainstream audience.

In other news, Matt Rice of Geekadelphia wrote a great review of the book, proclaiming, “Anyone with an interest in gaming, pop-culture or even sociology will be fascinated by Leaving Mundania.”

Leaving Mundania Reading @ The Fallout Shelter

Does the idea of larp fascinate you or pique your interest? Do you live in New Jersey? Do you play Knight Realms, Dystopia Rising, or another local game? Been to the DREAMATION and DEXCON conventions? Are you friends with a certain Rutgers physicist?

Come on down to the Fallout Shelter (Comics, Games & Collectibles!) tomorrow night for the launch of Leaving Mundania. I’ll be reading from the book and signing copies.

Date: Saturday, April 28
Time: 7pm
Location: The Fallout Shelter, 320 Raritan Avenue, Highland Park, NJ.

If you’re on Facebook, it’d be great if you could RSVP via the Facebook invite.

Cheers!

In Defense of “Larp”

In the states, larp’s got a certain…ah…shall we say stigma attached to it. Larpers know this, and they don’t like it one bit. In fact, a lot of them hate the term “larp,” lamenting it as a weird-sounding word that quite possibly evokes a smelly bodily function.

Perhaps this explains why so many larp organizers use other terms to describe games that would otherwise seem to fit in the “larp” rubric. Here’s a little sampling that I’ve come across in the course of my research:

  • Knight Realms bills itself as a “live acting experience.”
  • Interactive Outdoor Theater, a new game company in New Jersey, calls its games “rehearsals” and its players “cast members”
  • A couple people on one of my larp listservs prefer the more generic “roleplaying” or “live role playing,” while others objected to “larp” on the grounds that it lumps together very different sorts of games, and proposed a variety of more specific substitute terms, such as “battle games,” “freeform,” “live combat,” “theater style,” and “parlor games.”
  • Seventh Kingdom calls itself an IGE or “interactive gaming experience.”
  • The Osiris Sanction, a game that apparently has pervasive aspects by NERO grandaddy Ford Ivey is called  a “LUG,” or live urban game.
  • Wyrd Con, a US-based convention in the style of Knutepunkt, calls itself an “interactive theater” convention.
  • Incidentally, the above are all lovely games/venues, and are worth checking out.

Here’s my take: larpers, call yourselves larpers. OWN IT. Yeah, sure, you could call yourself “roleplayers” — you are roleplaying, but to me that just doesn’t have the snap that “larp” does. As a word, “larp” is freaking awesome. For starters, it sounds like a real word, and it’s adaptable as a noun, verb or adjective. (I larped at the larp; the after party felt larpy because everyone still had their costumes on. I larped the larp with larpy larpers.) Plus, if the random people I meet in bars are any judge, there are tons of non-gamers out there who are already familiar with the term. You can capitalize on this.

I get it — “larp” has a bad rap — but it’s totally possible to reclaim it as a term by getting your story out there.But in re-qualiftying your game to avoid the stigma, you are, perhaps, further stigmatizing good old “larp” as an unutterable insult.

Is the term broad? Yes! But that’s part of its awesomeness. Part of the reason the medium is already so misunderstood is that it’s cloaked in all this mysterious technical jargon — NPC, GM, IG, OOG — that is inaccessible to the uninitiated. Splitting larp into more technical categories like “battle games,” “theater games,” “salon games,” etc. isn’t going to fix that — it simply creates more terms for the average non-gamer to negotiate. It fragments your community into many even smaller fringe communities. To mainstream culture, as IGErs, LRPGers, battle gamers, you are individually weak, confusing, and dismissible. Together, as larpers, you are a strong movement rapidly moving into the mainstream consciousness.

By all means, keep on using the finer terms and technical gradations inside the gaming community — to the seasoned gamer, to someone already in the know, they are tremendously useful. I’m not much for battle games, for example, but I love theater-style games, and I’m curious to try a LUG, mainly because I’m not yet sure quite what it is (though I love the verby-sounding name). But first and foremost, be a larp.

Sure, the theater analogies are tempting; there are strong parallels between theater and larp, and I think it’s a great idea to party with all the interactive theater people out there. But I also think you should be proud of your roots in gaming — the interactive theater people have a lot to learn from you. Larp isn’t theater and it’s not a theater-derivative; it’s its own cool and special medium, and as such, it deserves a unique name.

Think of it this way: if “larp” goes mainstream, then you won’t have to explain the general term, just your specific niche to the interested consumer. Educating the public about larp in general saves you time in explaining specifics. Instead of telling prospective new players, “magical fantasy interactive theater von LRPGROFFLBBQ? Do you have a couple hours so I can explain it to you?” you’ll be able to say “this is a larp where ___.”

Viva la larp!

Think I’m dead wrong? Think I’m half-right? Are there other reasons to use names that aren’t “larp”? Have you got a better term? Is the whole thing a non-issue that I’m blowing out of proportion? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

I Caught a Fish THIS BIG: Realism, Tall Tales & American Larp

In Europe, a lot of larpers care about historical accuracy, or so I’m told. The “360 degree” larpers want illusion so complete that one could mistake an “Old West town” for an Old West town, right down to the period undergarments. Even the medieval boffer larpers have costumes that look historical and are made of period-appropriate materials.

In contrast, American larpers just don’t care about historical accuracy that much; sure, they want the game world to be consistent and feel real, but (outside of reenactment) they’re not fanatical about it. We wear rayon, polyester, and sometimes tennis shoes to medieval larps. “Wench” costuming is prevalent, even though the whole corset-skirt-chemise combo doesn’t hail from a real historical period. It simply looks “medieval” in the most generic sense.

I can’t help but attribute this difference to the United States’ lack of ancient history — we’re newbies compared to the old world.  For games set in worlds before 1500, we have no national barometer in a physical sense — abandoned castles, monoliths, etc — of what accuracy might look like. If you’re in Massachusetts, sure, there are old churches and buildings dating from the 1700s. If you’re in Topeka Kansas, the date is much more recent. We don’t feel our history; we don’t live alongside it the way Europe does.

Medieval Disneyland

Medieval larp is a way of creating and reclaiming a shared primordial past, a past of mythic heroism. Despite our country’s more modern origins, we’re preoccupied with medievalism, which perhaps grows out of our own lack of a medieval past. We’re obsessed with recreating it and living it. Consider Dungeons & Dragons, the first roleplaying game, the wildly popular World of Warcraft, and the stateside prevalence of medieval boffer larp and battle games. Sure, these games aren’t realistic — they contain stuff that never existed like elves and fireballs, but still, it constitutes an attempt to forge a connection to a past that has never existed for us.

To me, the larp worlds created in the U.S. remind me of Umberto Eco’s book Travels in Hyperreality, a loose collection of essays about Eco’s journeys through America’s simulacra.  A simulacrum, according to philosopher Jean Baudrillard, is a copy or simulation of something that never existed. So Disney World is a simulacrum — it’s not a recreation of something that actually exists in real life. Rather, it’s an imitation of Walt Disney’s fairy-tale fantasy made concrete. In the U.S., we don’t have concrete ancient history, but we do have simulacra.

Simulacra are part of the hyperreal — a fantasy made indistinguishable from reality — a fantasy or fiction that seems truer than what really is. For example, Cinderella’s Castle at Disney world looks like a medieval castle, but it’s not a reproduction of any particular castle or medieval style of architecture — it simply looks “medieval.” Somehow, the feeling of “medievalness” has been concentrated, and eventually, this unreality takes the place of the historical medieval in our minds.

European larpers have a concrete historical standard by which to judge their costumes — they live alongside their history and can imitate it. On the other hand, Knight Realms players and other American larpers base their costumes on other simulacra — stuff they’ve seen in Lord of the Rings, stuff that seems medieval, that is evocative of the medieval. Historical accuracy is simply irrelevant.

Tall Tales

In America, we don’t have myth; we have tall tales from the frontier. There’s Paul Bunyan, a giant logger with a huge pet blue ox, Babe, who dug the Grand Canyon when he dragged his axe behind him. John Henry famously raced a steam drill and won only to die with his hammer in his hand. Who could forget Pecos Bill, raised by a pack of coyotes, who lassoed a tornado and rode a giant catfish down the Rio Grande?

These tall tales concern men who are larger than life; they describe exceptional people who take extraordinary risks and accomplish super-human feats.

The set up of the medieval fantasy boffer larp Knight Realms echoes these tall tales. According to the Knight Realms website, “Every PC in this game is a ‘hero’ in the Knight Realms world. They are above and beyond the normal man.”

All of the player-characters at Knight Realms are considered better than the normal human, which is why they can dispatch many of the non player characters with aplomb. The irony is, of course, that when everyone is extraordinary, the extraordinary becomes normal. My priest may be awesome compared to the game world in general, but compared to others in town, she’s barely average. Because everyone else is also exceptional, it’s hard to stand out, which may create competition among players for the spotlight during a plot-point or other scene.

Perhaps our cultural tendency toward hyperbole, as evidenced through our national tall tales, explains why larps that aim at social realism are few and far between. We don’t play commoners with interesting emotional lives; we want to play characters of mythic, steel-driving stature.

Is this a uniquely American phenomenon? Or do larpers in other countries prefer to play larger-than-life characters too?

How To Assemble A Great Larp Costume

Welcome to the first-timers’ series, in which I ask a panel of seasoned gamers and experts from the US and beyond to advise newbies on a variety of larp-related topics, from running a first game to organizing a convention. It’s not easy to try something new, but sound advice can help ease the way.

Today’s tips cover how to assemble a great larp (or Halloween!) costume.

Geoffrey Schaller recommends starting small:

Take it easy.  Rome wasn’t built in a day!  Start simple, and gradually add to it over time.  “Get dressed” as your persona.  Assuming this isn’t for a cosplay as a specific character, or a one-time event like a Halloween party, you can keep adding bits to your costume each time you wear it.  It’s one thing to hear “Nice costume” – it’s another to hear “Wow, you’re costume’s improved over the past few months – I can’t wait to see what’s next!”

 

It doesn’t have to be fancy, says Emma Wieslander:

Keep it simple, make sure it’s functional for the game and for the location. Ask If you can borrow some of the stuff and focus on a tunic or top that says something about your character. Take real patterns and use them as a base if you are going to sow from scratch. Often you can find stuff at second hand stores and alter.

 

The elusive Liz recommends thrift stores for costuming on the cheap:

I feel it is important for first time larpers to get the best costume they can for the least amount of money.  The easiest way to do this is shop thrift stores.  No matter what genre you are going to be playing you can find something that will work and for very little money.

If you are handy with sewing you can alter the costume to suit your character better.  The other option is the entirely sew yourself a costume.  Patterns will only set you back a few dollars and since you can buy out of print patterns on the internet, you can make pretty much anything you could want.  Though, be warned that higher-end fabrics can cost you almost as much as buying a professionally made garment.

Do NOT buy from a trendy store, the clothing will not stand up to the rigors of larping and costs a lot more.

 

The details count for a lot, according to Anna Westerling:

Accessorize! You can have a fairly simple costume, and then add accessories to put it in the right era of time or to mark the qualities of your character. For example, use a fan if your character is flirtatious, a book if your character is learned or wear a lot of color if your character is artistic.

 

Buy strategically, Avonelle Wing says:

Don’t feel like you have to go buy everything from scratch. If you do buy something new, either buy something with enormous impact, like a flashy wig, a signature doublet or a quirky hat, OR buy items that can be repurposed into your real life or future costumes.

As an example, over a decade ago, I bought two black ballgown skirts on clearance after the holiday season.  I’ve used those skirts for vampires, gypsies, dignitaries, wizards and faeries.  I’ve lent them out, I’ve mended one of them twice.  Since I know I like playing flouncy female characters, this was a GREAT investment for me.  If you prefer playing skulky, shadowy, edgy characters, maybe your splurge is a leather jacket from the thrift store.

Look at what you’re playing.  identify the basic shape of costuming–is it pants, shirt, utility vest? is it skirt, bodice, cleavage? Scavenge your wardrobe and then add the signature piece/color/theme. Going monochromatic is a fast way make a strong visual impact.

For a campaign, don’t commit to an entire wardrobe until you’ve settled into the character and really know what you need.  And don’t sink a lot of money into the costume until you’ve played the character in the space you’ll be in.  I worked up awesome theoretical armor for a boffer game I play. And once I wore it, I realized it needed MASSIVE adjustments.  (Any armor that makes it tricky to use visit the little gamer’s room is suspect at an all-weekend event.  any armor you can’t put on single-handedly? also suspect. Any armor that ends up twisting and bunching up when you break into a jog? Unacceptable.)

Theoretical costuming often falls apart in a physical world.  Test it before you commit to it.

 

Cassie recommends pockets and vacuuming:

The best advice I can give is this: make sure your outfit has pockets of some kind. Whether they’re regular pockets in your pants, hidden ones sewn into the lining, or even just belt pouches, do not neglect the pockets! You may not need to carry your wallet and phone, but larps have plenty of other things you’ll need to keep track of and access easily. Think carefully about what your character might be carrying, besides what is logistically needed (like character cards). You might have in-game currency, potions, item cards, plus small props or tools for your character. You will need a way to carry all of these that does not involve constantly setting them down on the nearest table.

Other practical concerns: If you’re larping outside, you need to take the weather into account. If you’re just starting out, consider wearing a costume that you can easily hide mundane clothing underneath. Later on, you might consider having summer and winter outfits, with some removable outer pieces for those autumn and spring days when the temperature changes wildly. Even if you’re larping inside, hotel temperature control is notorious for being too hot or cold, so again, consider layering your costume pieces.

What kind of larp is it? Is it a boffer larp, where you’ll be running around a lot? Is it a vampire larp, where you’ll be lounging like the sexy beast you are on the nearest couch? Whatever the style, make sure you can move in your outfit in the ways you will be moving in the larp. Wear the costume at least once before you go to the larp, so that you can tell early on if it’s going to be restricting or uncomfortable in any way, or if you’ll need help at the larp to put it on. Something I’ve heard often, and used to great benefit, is to vacuum the house in your costume. If you can’t do that, you have no business wearing that outfit, and if you’ve sewn the outfit yourself the activity will test all the seams.

Last piece of advice: good footwear is key. Larp is all about getting up and moving around, and you will be standing for a good portion of it. Four-inch heels may look great, but if you’re not already used to wearing them for long periods of time, you’re going to spend most of the larp surreptitiously looking for ways to sit down. Practical footwear in solid black or brown is a good choice for your first costume. A good work boot will blend in well with many costumes; ladies, if the larp is going to be inside and requires you to dress all fancy-like, consider wearing dressy flats instead of heels.

If you keep the practical aspects of the costume in mind while you’re planning, it will go further towards your enjoyment of the game than having a pretty outfit in which you can’t actually play. Your role-playing is the star of the show, not your clothes, so don’t wear things that will take your attention away from the game!

 

Think about your character’s mentality, and the game’s setting says Sarah Bowman:

Costume pieces are like power items for your character. Often, when we don our costume, it helps us get more deeply immersed in the mentality of the character. Think about your character concept as you shop, not just what you would personally choose to wear in the mundane world.

If you see another player whose style you particularly admire, feel free to ask them where they shop or if they are willing to give you pointers. Some players even hold workshops for costume, weapon, and prop-making. Most role-players love to help newbies, so don’t be shy!

Spend some time ritualizing the donning of your costume before game. Allow the costume to take you into the mindset of your character. If you are applying makeup or accessories, take your time and allow that transformation to take place both externally and internally. A well-designed costume can help decrease the nervousness you may feel before game, for both you and for the other players.

 

Nuance has a place, but not in a larp costume, according to Michael Pucci:

Don’t be subtle!  Go over the top as you design the costume and think to yourself, “What are the signature items that truly make this character’s costume?”  Every character has something that is key to them, and only them… be it a certain jacket, hat, or walking stick make sure you assign that item to that character and that character only.  That way as your costume changes and evolves, people will still recognize the character by the key costume items.

Make sure your costume is something that you are willing to wear the entire time you are playing your character because players removing costuming bits is on par with girls at a prom removing their shoes.

 

See if your game has costuming they lend out, Amber Eagar says:

I’ve found it common for games to have loaner costuming that they can let you borrow if you don’t have anything at all, though check on this earlier rather than later as you may need to make special arrangements for it.

 

When in doubt, wear black, Jeramy Merritt urges:

Black t-shirt, black sweat pants, black sneakers.  As far as costumes go, it is pretty lousy.  It really isn’t a costume at all.  What it is however is unobtrusive and cheap.  If you don’t have them already, you can probably snag these articles for less than $20.  If you are just going to check out a game, or you’ve never larped before and don’t want to make the investment, this is about as simple as it gets.

 

And finally, Aaron Vanek reminds us not to forget practical concerns:

The three most important things to consider for a larp costume are:
  • mobility – can you move with ease? This is extremely important if you are in a live combat larp with physical action
  • comfort – is it warm enough, too warm, does it chafe, can you breathe in that corset? Remember that most larps are four hours or longer. Can you stand to be in that outfit all day and all night?
  • pockets – seriously, you need a way of carrying character sheets, in-game info, spell components, whatever. And if you don’t have any of that to start, you might get some later on, and you need to keep it on you

____

Geoffrey Schaller is a gaming gypsy, having wandered into and out of tabletop RPGs, Collectable Card Games, Miniatures, larp (WoD, boffer, and other), Board Games, MMOs, and countless other forms of gaming, as a player, play tester, demo-runner, author, and staff member.  He still dabbles in all of them when he gets the chance. He is the Technical Director of Double Exposure, Inc.

Emma Wieslander has been a gamer and larper since the late eighties and served as a front figure for the Swedish national gamers association during the times when role-playing was still under suspicion. Emma’s more notable larps explore love, gender and how we construct these norms. In creating these games, she invented methods to enable play around these topics. Her most known contributions are the frozen moments and the Ars amandi method.

Liz has been larping for ten years and her first costume (which was for Knight Realms) cost her $6 and that included shoes.  She didn’t learn how to sew until she had been larping for 4 years.

Anna Westerling is a larper, larp-producer and role-player of the Scandinavian larp scene. She has organized larps as A nice Evening with the Family, and produced Knutpunkt and the book Nordic Larp.

Avonelle Wing is the Senior Vice President of Double Exposure, Inc. Along with her partners and a team of friends, comrades and co-visionaries, she works to produce two full-sized gaming conventions and a variety of other gaming related productions each year.  She is a larper at her core – collaborative storytelling is her art form of choice.

Cassie tries to be a modern renaissance nerd, which mostly results in a mess in her living room, a closet dedicated to costuming, and a lot of soldering accidents. She also writes a blog about gaming and nerd culture.

Sarah Lynne Bowman received her PhD from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008. McFarland press published her dissertation in 2010 under the title The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity. Her current research focuses upon understanding social conflict within role-playing communities and applying Jungian theory to the phenomenon of character immersion.

Michael Pucci is the CEO of Eschaton Media and the creator of multiple larps, tabletop books, scripts and gaming-related media.  He has more than twenty years experience storytelling for larps, tabletops, and convention games, and spent five years in the business side of the gaming industry. He proudly holds the title of ‘Zombie Lord‘ while looking for more inventive approaches to modernize gaming.

Amber Eagar is a long time larper and game organizer, who edited the academic books put out in conjunction with Wyrd Con in 2010 and 2011 (Journeys To Another World and Branches of Play). She is a former RPG.net columnist, and maintains two mailing lists, called LARP Academia and International LARP Academia, for those in the USA or those around the world who like to take a more academic look at larping.

Jeramy Merritt is a long-time larper, first-time caller. He is the creator of Doomsday, a sci-fi larp.

Aaron Vanek has been playing, designing, running, and thinking about larps for 25 years. His larp publications include the illustrated essay “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing“; “The Non-United Larp States of America” in the Talk Knutepunkt 2011 book, “Predictions for Larp” in Journeys to Another World, the Wyrd Con book, and the blueprint for “Rock Band Murder Mystery” in the Do Knutepunkt 2011 book. He hopes for at least another 25 years of larp.

Got a hot tip? Is there a first-timer’s guide you’d like to see? Leave it in the comments!

Other First-Time Guides

Giant Spiders Jumped Me On My Way To Bed

I spend last weekend medieval camping in the wilds of Sparta, New Jersey at the Knight Realms LARP as part of my book research.  Well, not quite medieval camping — I and around 60 others huddled in heated cabins that had electricity, but we wore medieval style dress and lugged around boffers.

The highlights:

  • On Friday night Mr. Lizzie Stark and I were hiking back to our sleeping quarters and we stopped to look at the stars in the middle of a field because we rarely get to see them. With essentially no warning, a swarm of five or six NPCs (non-playing characters for you luddites), appeared, hissing and waving around those foam pool noodles in the dark.  They were spiders, and they managed to down the Mister while I ran through mud puddles, dirtying my brand new costume, shrieking at the top of my lungs in the cold dark.The Mister’s character almost died and mine was unconscious for several minutes. We didn’t make it to sleep until more than an hour later, after most of the town walked us to our cabin. It was all worth it for the genuine moment of fear and panic I felt — I’m surprised at the power that fake combat has to rouse genuine emotions, and ones I rarely get to feel, like the danger of bodily harm.
  • I sold my weird pickles at the Saturday market faire for fake money.  Sure, delicious fermented kraut, kim chi, hot peppers and lemon don’t please every palate, but I found a few takers. Remember kids: fermented pickles are one of the world’s oldest forms of food preservation, and they replenish the intestinal bacteria in your gut in much the same way yogurt does, aiding in digestion.

It was too bad I had to cut out early, before the big battle, but that probably means I’ll live to boff another day.

When the Game Carries Over

That in-game emotions sometimes spill over into the out of game world is one of the hazards of LARPing.  Say someone kills your character in-game, knowing that in doing so, they’re causing your character to lose stats.  Would you bear them ill-will once the event is over?

I always thought my answer would be no.  After all, it’s the risk of conflict, penalty and the unknown plot point that makes LARP exciting.  But a few months ago I learned otherwise.

I went to my second Knight Realms event where I met a certain character whom I initially enjoyed.  But over the course of the evening, he told me I was a terrible priest who should leave my religion to follow him.  I felt genuinely annoyed, and I was surprised when during a break he came up to me and introduced himself out of character and explained that his character is annoying, but that in real life, he’s not.

The weird thing was that my feeling of annoyance stayed with me even though we were out of character, evidence, perhaps, that the division I personally draw between the in-game and out-of game worlds is not substantial enough. That I found it difficult to let go of those feelings of annoyance surprised me — I know it’s all just a game, but the emotions stayed irrationally with me.

I wonder how more seasoned LARPers deal with the division between in game and out of game feelings.  It’s not as easy as it sounds…

I Hate Rules

I love the idea behind LARP and tabletop role-playing — that a group of people are getting together to collaboratively tell a story. But whenever someone explains the mechanics of a game to me, my eyes glaze over in seconds and I start thinking about what kind of hat my character would wear.

Sure, I’ve been covering this world for about a year, but I’m ashamed to admit that I a complete noob when it comes to the rules.  I’m getting ready to attend my third Knight Realms and Avatar System events respectively, and it’s downright embarassing that I don’t know from boffer damage or faith points. My mind simply doesn’t want to grasp the rules.  It wants plot.  Lots of plot.

The flip side of the coin is that rules make the game, set parameters for the world, and are there to seamlessly handle interactions between characters without an interloper.  My tack of asking someone else which dice I roll or how many cards I pick every time I hack at a monster gets old fast and disrupts the game for other players by taking them out of character and into mechanics.

In fact, my ignorance of the rules means I can’t figure out what is possible inside the games and that degrades my own experience of this community.  I may hate simple math, dull statistics (hello! why do you think I became a writer) and reading of dry tracts, but it’s finally time for me to pore over those rulebooks.

What is LARP?

I’m at work on a narrative nonfiction book about Live Action Role Play, also known as LARP. The book, tentatively titled Leaving Mundania, is the story of LARPers, self-described geeks who come from a variety of backgrounds and occupations.

I’ve interviewed a chaplain who becomes a monomaniacal villain to understand how the addicts he counsels feel, an ex-army man turned high school history teacher who plays a succubus on weekends, and an ex-gang member who transformed his gang-mentality into art, to name a few.

Each chapter of the book will focust on a different aspect of LARP, from costuming to relationships, to playing evil characters to the people who run the games.

In a nutshell, LARP is like a murder mystery weekend that stretches on for years, like a Dungeons and Dragons game plus improv theater, like a Lord of the Rings movie or Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode as enacted by a cast of costumed amateurs without a script.  Essentially, LARP is well-organized make-believe for grownups.

At this point in time, I’m primarily following two LARPs: The Avatar System, a game that spans many genres, and Knight Realms, a boffer-style medieval LARP. I’m also going to follow a cadre of tabletop players who also organize several intermittent LARPs.

Over the coming months I will use this space as a reporter’s notebook on LARP.  I’ll post thoughts and anecdotes about LARP, links to other sources, and other musings as they occur to me.