Out of Character

A friend of mine has recently started a project in which he interviews LARPers and compiles the answers into short videos. It’s called Out of Character, and there are two short videos up so far. The first features a variety of LARPers answering the questions, “how do you define LARP, and how would you explain it to someone new?” The second video features LARPers answering the question, “is LARP a type of game or an art form?” The result is pretty interesting. Check them out here!

I missed my chance to be one of the interviewees at last year’s NELCO (too busy at panels!) but I’ve been thinking about how I would answer the questions. The answers in the Out of Character videos are interesting and many are quite good (and some are relatively popular, like the cross-between-Dungeons-and-Dragons-and-improv-theater response.) But I didn’t see any that particularly spoke to me — either because I don’t feel as though they quite capture the way I think of LARP, or because they require someone who already understands tabletop RPGs and improv, or possibly simply because some of these descriptions don’t quite sound like fun to me.

I think I would define LARP as a medium, a form of collaborative storytelling in which people take on the roles of characters other than themselves and physically interact within a shared setting, often under the guidance of a set of given rules.

…Which is not at all a useful in terms of allowing people unfamiliar with the concept to conjure an image in their head of what engaging in LARP might actually look like. It’s a particularly difficult activity to describe, I think, in part because it’s a nebulous concept and no two LARPers agree on exactly where its borders are — what does fall under this category, and what does not. And it’s also difficult to describe because it encompasses a wide range of activities, and two LARPs can appear completely different. If someone lists “basketball” as one of their hobbies, even if without more specifics (do they mean five on five with uniforms on a court, or one on one in a driveway with a single hoop?), one can still conjure the important aspects of the picture to mind. It involves a ball that gets dribbled and thrown into a basket.

By contrast, people may be running through the woods at night, hitting one another with padded weapons and be LARPing, or they might be sitting around a board room table in business suits, arguing and blaming one another for a failed business plan and be LARPing. They might be wearing Renaissance garb, or they might be dressed like cats, or they might be wearing plain every day clothes, and visiting tourist attractions during their free time. They might be waltzing, or drinking tea, or moving pieces over a Risk-like map. They might be suddenly bursting into song like actors in a musical, or carving pumpkins. How can one picture a LARP if they’ve never been in one?

If I want to conjure a visual of boffer LARPing, I often describe it as a bunch of people, maybe 100 in all, renting a summer camp during the off-season, half of them dressing like characters walking off the set of Lord of the Rings, half of them dressed like some kind of monster or bad guy, all running around in the woods and hitting one another with padded weapons (and bean bag-like packets). Which sounds much more like a war game than a LARP, but I think it conjures the basic image. I can go into more detail about things like characters, plot, and rule systems if the listener is curious about more than a basic idea of boffer LARPing looks like.

For theater LARP, I have recently come up with a new description. It only describes a subset of theater LARPs, but it does conjure a decent image of the most common form that I’ve played.

Imagine writing a book, with a cast of 20 main characters. Imagine that the climax of the book takes place at some sort of gathering — maybe a party, or a meeting, or a wedding, or a funeral — where all 20 characters will be, and all of the plots between them comes to a boil when they’re all in the same place.

Now imagine you write the book 20 times, each from the point of view of a different character. Every book has only part of the story, because no character knows everything.

Now imagine instead of writing the conclusions of the book, you cut them off right at the moment that all of the characters arrive at the party, before all of the conflict and drama and tension boils over.

Now imagine you give each of those books — actually shorter stories, maybe novellas — to 20 of your friends, and ask them all to dress like the character of their books and show up at some given time and place, where you’re staging the party. There, they’ll take on the role of their character and try to do what they think their character would try to do over the next four hours (or however long), with maybe some rules for representing stuff their character can do (like stabbing people with swords, or casting magic spells, or poisoning people) but your 20 friends cannot.

And that’s a basic theater LARP.

Of course, I picked the two primary forms of LARP in my life. It’s arguable that those are the only two forms, if you choose to define boffer (or “live action”) as LARP with live combat and theater as LARP without it. (A or Not A always covers all options, of course.) But these certainly aren’t the only definitions out there, and there are always edge cases and weird examples, and even if one did accept these definitions, that doesn’t make them the most useful possible way to categorize LARP. LARP taxonomy is a rather interesting topic, but I digress.

What do you guys think? Do these descriptions seem helpful for conversations with not just non-LARPers, but people who have never even heard of LARP? Do any potential tweaks come to mind?

My answer to the second video in the Out of Character series, which asks “is LARP a type of game or an art form?” is quite simple. The short answer is, “both”. The long answer is “both, but more than anything else, it’s a medium.”

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About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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8 Responses to Out of Character

  1. Stephen Kohler says:

    Copycat. :p

    Joking, of course, but I’ve used a roughly similar description for theatrical LARP for years, albeit slimmed down; A LARP is like a book with lots of main characters, that only has the first few chapters; so you get the intro to all the characters and the setting, but not what they’re going to do. You “play” one of them, and you see what happens.

    (That being said, I like your description a bit more, at least in it’s completeness. I think it gets the feel of theatrical LARP across better then mine)

  2. I’ve listened to several people try to describe an “Intercon LARP” or “theater style LARP” to me, mostly by people who’ve only played a handful of LARPs at Intercon. They were quite convinced that they could easily categorize them.

    So, what is an Intercon LARP? Take a look at: http://interactiveliterature.org/NEIL/whatIsLARPToUs.html.

  3. Brian R. says:

    My response to the whole larp definition thing is:

    “It is impossible to construct a meaningful and consistent definition that catches everything which its participants would call a larp, and nothing whose participants wouldn’t call a larp.

    Thus, you have a choice: Do you confuse improv-ers and annoy SCA-ers and Battle Gamers by calling what they do larp? Or do you offend the players of light improv-focused larps or story-light-battle-heavy larps by saying that what they do isn’t larp?

    Or do you construct a meaningless definition by saying that a larp is any activity whose organizers choose to call a larp?”

    • Stephen Kohler says:

      The problem is that, at least in my experience, that’s useless for new players, or at least potential new players. When you’re trying to convince people to try LARP, you need something better then “It’s undefinable in every way”. Adina’s definition at least works for the subset of LARP I run, and therefore is useful. (I.E. the old statistics quote: All models are wrong. Some are useful)

      • Fair Escape says:

        I love that statistics quote. It feels incredibly apt.

        I agree that my book metaphor is probably much better as a sales pitch than what Brian said, even though I completely agree with him. (Ah, the No True Scotsman problem.)

        And to answer his question (whether it’s rhetorical or not) I most often choose the meaningless definition option. As I often say, “if you want to call what you’re doing a LARP, I won’t argue. And if you say it’s not a LARP, I won’t argue.”

        That said, OOC’s question was simply “how would you explain LARP to someone new”. And as many of the interviewees said, that depends a lot on who I’m talking to. If the person I’m talking to is someone I want to convince to try LARPing, that would, of course, have a huge impact. It’s a rather interesting topic, I think, and also a very important one. (Perhaps a topic for a future post?)

      • Brian R. says:

        Well, yes. Defining larp as an academic question and “describe to me the experience I am about to have” are two completely different questions. I was answering the former.

        (I posted to answer the question in the OoC video, not to criticize Fairescape’s answer in any way).

  4. Pingback: New OOC Video | FairEscape

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