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How LARPing Grew from an Odd Hobby to an International Phenomenon

Beyond the stereotypes, live action role-playing is a vibrant scene that draws inspiration from tabletop games, drama, and performance art.

by Dan Duray
Oct 7 2015, 4:00am

Still from the VICE documentary 'LARPing Saved My Life.' Photo by Elise Coker

The movie Role Models was a surprise hit in 2008, and with its success camethe unlikely side effect of a wider audience learning about live action role-playing, a.k.a. that thing where people dress up as knights and fight each other. In the movie Paul Rudd, is forced to become a mentor to Christopher Mintz-Plasse's character, who is into LARPing and patiently explains to Rudd that he has to bow to a certain player, because he's the king, who "rules the entire realm." "Oh, he rules the entire realm?" Rudd quips. "Oh, my bad. Is that when he is or isn't whacking it to The Sims?"

Jokes about LARPers are easy to the point of being low blows. To those who would dismiss them, the whole endeavor conjures stereotypical images of nerds in medieval garb swinging foam swords and casting "spells." But beneath the surface, a rich and impressively complex world of performance, community, and art exists all around the world.

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Most LARPing scholars agree that its current iteration probably dates back to 1977 and the foundation of Dagorhir, a DC-area full-contact medieval contact game played outdoors. Dungeons & Dragons had debuted in 1974 but Dagohir's website says founder Bryan Weise had never heard of the tabletop game when he put out an ad on an underground Maryland radio station that said, "Anyone wanting to fight in Hobbit Wars with padded weapons call Bryan at the following number." (Dagorhir now claims thousands of members in chapters around the world.)

A similar early game was Treasure Trap, which began at Peckforton Castle in Cheshire, England, in 1982. Treasure Trap was influenced by the tabletop RPG RuneQuest and featured monsters jumping out at players and its own argot. Treasure Trap's invention presaged that year's CBS TV movie Mazes and Monsters , which was based on a Rona Jaffe novel and featured a 26-year-old Tom Hanks in his first starring role. Mazes is about a group of friends who want to take their D&D-like game to the next level by playing it in the real world, in a local cave. As the role-playing experience intensifies, Hanks's character loses his connection with reality, stoking the fires of moral panic already surrounding D&D and other RPGs.

Still from the VICE documentary 'LARPing Saved My Life.' Photo by Elise Coker

Lizzie Stark, author of the deep-diving book Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games , calls LARPing a "grassroots movement," one that developed around the world and, through an unlikely convergent evolution, came to be defined by the same term. Stark says it would be a mistake to think of LARPing as only "Boffer" LARP, as the foam-sword fantasies have come to be known.

"You can have people running around in the woods hitting each other," Stark tells vice, "and you can have three hours of people pretending to be alcoholics, in the last hours of one of those alcoholic's lives, and then he dies." She's referring to what's been called Nordic art LARP, which focuses more on exploring a particular emotion or part of the psyche. "And then there's everything in between. Making generalizations about LARP is like making generalizations about the novel."

Watch an excerpt from our new film 'LARPing Saved My Life'

Different things bring different people to a LARP, she said, citing GNS theory, a term coined by game designer Ron Edwards. It states that role-playing attracts "gamists," "narrativists," and "simulationists," which makes for a diverse crowd with diverse interests. In 2008, for example, the New Museum's Rhizome program gave artist Brody Condon a grant to make a LARP in rural Missouri based off William Gibson's 1984 cyberpunk classic Neuromancer. In an interview about the project, Condon compared the Scandinavian variety of LARP to the work of famed Danish auteur Lars von Trier and his Dogme 95 school of progressive, realistic filmmaking. "I think it's a hidden influence on him but he's not going to admit it," Condon told Art in America. "He uses their techniques. LARPers themselves took the Dogme 95 Manifesto and began to apply it to their events. They created their own manifesto in '99, going down the list. There's to be no more [prescribed] plot, no more genre, no more simulation—if you hit somebody you have to hit them. Everything is what it is."

Despite such innovations, Starks reminded me, "There's still plenty of people hitting each other with foam swords. That is a LARP tradition with a long and distinguished history."

Photos by Felix von der Orsten

The 1980s saw the development of the college game Assassin, in which all players are given a living target on campus, into a proper LARP by creating the gold standard for its rules by students at MIT. The 1981 H. P. Lovecraft–inspired role-playing game Call of Cthulhu has proven fodder for LARPing, as has the 1991 game Vampire: The Masquerade (it's a bit Buffy meets Dark Shadows).

In recent years, Nordic countries have seen the development of much more creative and experimental LARPs, like the ones described by Stark and Condon. There's a LARP, played over the course of a week, about the AIDS epidemic in New York, in which group of gay friends meets up at the same Fourth of July party in 1982, '83, and '84. Last year, at a lecture at the Larpwriter Summer School in Lithuania, larpwright and interaction designer Eirik Fatland described games in which couples break up as well as LARPs set in ad agencies or in Dr. Strangeglove—like nuclear showdowns. This isn't to say that all LARPs are now arty: At the other end of the spectrum, plans are currently underway to build a LARPing theme park on Macau's Cotai Strip.

Photo by Felix von der Orsten

Fatland classifies Jacob Moreno's psychodramas and the Rand Corporation's war games as the proper precursors to LARPing. In her book, Lizzie Stark cites games played by Henry VIII, in which his court would reenact tales of Robin Hood, as still earlier LARPs. And this is to say nothing of LARPing's similarity to performance art. What is Yoko Ono's Cut Piece, in which audience members use scissors to remove her clothing bit by bit, but a form of LARPing?

David Ewalt, author of Of Dice and Men, a history of Dungeons & Dragons, said that in his experience with LARPing, the hobby draws those from the worlds of theater, cosplay, and historical reenactment as much as it does those sweaty nerds detractors imagine.

"A lot of people have a lasting fantasy in their lives," he explained. "They watch movies. They play video games. But those experiences don't really put you into a fantasy. They don't allow you to experience it. They don't allow you to become a full person in those worlds." LARPs are, in many ways, a purer way to tap into these worlds, he said, one that creates much more empathy, and a more lasting experience.

"LARPs," he said, "are allowing this unique way to express yourself or put yourself in someone else's shoes. It's illuminating. I think we'd live in a much more interesting world if everyone tried a LARP."

Watch our full length film LARPing Saved My Life

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