Mainstream LARP

Live action role-playing (LARP) started in the late 1970s and was inspired by table-top role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. Once considered a fringe activity of "geeks and nerds," LARP has become more mainstream, with thousands playing in more than 30 LARP organizations in the U.S. alone. Let's examine what LARP is, how widespread it has become, and look at some of the different genres LARP encompasses.

What Exactly Is a LARP—and What Makes It Different From Cosplay or Re-enactments?

Live action role-playing, cosplay, and re-enacting are similar, but there are differences that set them apart from each other. The term cosplay comes from combining costume and play, and it is about taking on the role of a fictional character, but it is all about the fashion, rather than gaming. Re-enactments may have fictional characters, but they are based on historical events, periods, battles, or real people. Live action role-playing involves taking on a fictional character and acting out a scenario as that character would, interacting with others doing the same. Playing a LARP is often called larping, and players are called larpers.

Live action role-playings can be small events lasting a few hours, or they can be more complex and take place for days. There is a gamemaster (GM) who determines the rules and settings, and acts as referee for the game. Non-player characters (NPCs) help the GM guide the direction of the game. Many LARPs involve combat; however, unlike re-enactments, realistic weapons are discouraged in most of them. Most LARP weapons are cardboard or foam instead. Live action role-playings may require an individual stay in character for the whole game, while others allow getting out of character during certain times.

White Wolf Publishing released the most commercially successful LARP, which is still being played, in 1993.

When, and Why, Did LARPs Start?

Informal groups, based on board games like Dungeons and Dragons, started in the late 1970s. After the release of the movie Logan's Run in 1976, larping based on the movie began popping up at U.S. science fiction conventions. The earliest recorded organized LARP group, Dagorhir was founded in the U.S. in 1977, and concentrated on fantasy, though it didn't incorporate magic in its games. It continues today, and has grown into an international organization with more than 100 chapters. Dagorhir comes from J.R.R. Tolkien's Elven language and means "Battle Lords."

Beginning in early childhood, pretend, make-believe, and imagination play a part in games. Role-playing was a popular theme of board games before LARPs, but larping allowed players to get even more involved. In a role-playing board game, play is verbal, the GM controls the entire game, and players aren't usually in character between turns. Larping involves actually getting into character and acting out the game scenario. The GM doesn't directly control the game because players interact simultaneously, and often across a wide area. Instead, the GM is more involved prior to play, setting up the environment, and making sure everyone stays in character during the game.

What Types of LARPs Are There?

Most LARPs are for entertainment, but there are LARPs designed for educational, political, and artistic purposes. Some LARPs mingle the LARP world with the real world, with bystanders not even aware that they are part of a game. The majority of LARPs borrow settings from established works, such as Logan's Run, or Lord of the Rings.

There are different classifications of LARPs which include:

  • Avant-garde—Experimental and artistic, these usually involve culture, politics, or religion.
  • Boffer—These are combat themed games, using foam weapons for safety.
  • Parlor Games—These involve a lot of social interaction, and are usually fairly short. They include games like the "How to Host a Murder" series of LARPs.
  • Theater—These have the most intricate backgrounds and plots, and the largest degree of costuming and set design. These typically do not involve combat.

Live action role-playings are organized for many genres. One of the most common is fantasy, which may or may not involve magic. Fantasy-themed LARPs could also be based on vampires, werewolves, and similar creatures. There are, however, also LARPs based on horror fiction, mythological based games, science fiction (which often are set in steampunk or post-apocalyptic settings, or involve aliens), and mystery ("who-done-its").

There are companies that specialize in selling LARP games, and there is an entire industry devoted to supplying larpers.

The Future of LARPs?

Live action role-playings haven't been represented very well in television or movies. Those involved in LARPs are often portrayed as "nerds" and "geeks," with few social skills, and a tendency to mix up reality with fantasy role-playing. The few that more or less get it right, still revert to the stereotype that people who LARP are weird, strange, and "out-of-it." In reality, LARPs are just another way for people to indulge in their natural tendency to play games and make-believe. There are companies today that are looking to combine virtual reality (VR) with larping to create what they call "gaming heaven." Live action role-playing expert, Lizzie Stark, says VR could introduce scenarios to LARPs otherwise impossible, such as a '70s LARP dealing with acid trips. Instead of drugs, the VR could provide sensory input to imitate an altered state.