Live Action Role Playing
In a city near you, but in a galaxy far, far away…
For the uninitiated, the following two scenes would not make a lick of sense.
In the late Saturday afternoon twilight inside the ancient pirate city, the townspeople of Runevale mill about. They’ve all traveled a long way by ship to the city. Their planet, Nexus, has been largely taken over by scores of the “undead” and the good guys are on the verge of being wiped out.
The pirates they seek out represent potential allies at a time when allies are few and far between. But by all accounts the biggest problem with this plan, is that they’re well… pirates.
A visitor lies winded after a scuffle with a gruff local. Another pirate, a smaller, more pleasant looking woman, steps forward.
“Who speaks for the group?” she inquires, looking out at the intruders.
“I do,” says Captain Hollis. He steps forward, dressed in a brown cloak, his face half-human and half-dear. A truce is brokered. They can stay.
The previous evening, 50 miles away in the Barony of Cambridge, a group of vampires clad in gothic, semi-Victorian garb gathered to discuss the affairs and politics of the day.
This town meeting in the Elysium was one of many forums where the treacherous internal dynamics of the many different sects of the Boston vampire community play themselves out. It remained mostly civil, but tensions brewed when it came time to discuss various killings and who would fill certain posts.
Taken with a large suspension of disbelief, these two scenes actually happened. But they are not proof of dimensional wormholes in Boston that lead through to alternate universes.
These are live action role-plays (LARPs). Each scene represents a group of people inhabiting a character they have created, set to the backdrop of a reality governed by a written plot, with the occasional actor thrown in to steer the game in the right direction.
There are rules and action, but there are no points and winners. New players can design their own characters as they please, but as in life they have to earn rather than think up their powers.
It is Dungeons and Dragons meets Second Life, with a playing field set at the intersection of imagination and practicality.
Joshua Slowick founded the Requiem LARP group, and inspired by a lifelong love of fantasy culture he dreamed up the detailed history of planet Nexus himself. At 29, the Lowell-based University of Massachusetts student has been LARPing for more than half of his lifetime.
Slowick intended the planet Nexus to be a dark, post-apocalyptic fantasy world, where the challenges and obstacles that he drums up for the players would provide situations for participants to display genuine bravery. The players dress in full costume and use plastic weapons to act out combat as realistically as possible. (Click here for video and a more detailed backstory of the world of Nexus)
Crimson Commonwealth, centered in the Science Center at Harvard University, was co-founded by Kevin Doherty. The game is more hands off than Requiem. There are no weapons, and combat is acted out through chance games. The game is focused less on overcoming broad demons and physical tests than negotiating a slippery world fraught with power struggles. (Click here for video and a more detailed backstory of the world of the Crimson Commonwealth)
“Crimson Commonwealth is the story of a secret society of vampires that live in Boston, and their attempts to negotiate political and supernatural circumstances beyond their control,” says Crimson Commonwealth role-player Jason Schneiderman, a local editor and proofreader who has been LARPing for 20 years.
Beyond the story of it all, lay some more mundane realities. Crimson Commonwealth’s co-founder Doherty has found a space in Harvard University on the third floor of the Science Center to use every few Friday evenings for the group’s role-playing. But he still has to deal with bystanders who work in the building. The group uses lapel pins to denote who is and isn’t a player and he says that they receive some “pretty odd looks” from people who happen to be walking through their floor.
Requiem, which holds about eight events a year, creates a broader set of logistical headaches for Slowick. The group is currently taking up Camp Denison in Georgetown, Mass., for its weekend long event. Slowick says that it can be a stretch to find a campsite away from the prying eyes of the public, who can easily break the authenticity of the in-game experience or even call the police. The group needs to also buy insurance in case a participant is injured, and it pays a special role-playing surcharge on this. (Click here for a photo gallery from the Requiem event)
These two scenes, and broader LARP culture by extension, have several roots, some of which extend back to the dawn of recorded history. The Romans, Han Chinese and medieval Europeans all practiced historical reenactment as a form of public entertainment; the growth and explosion of the arts in the 16th century lead to new art forms of improvisation; the Prussian army developed an improvised wargame in the early 19th century to prepare for battle. (Click here for a more detailed history of LARPing)
In 1974, the tabletop game Dungeons and Dragons went on sale and became wildly popular. Slowick credits it as birthing live action roleplay. “It was just such a short jump between thinking, ‘hey this is cool,’ and ‘hey, wouldn’t it be cool to be actually doing this in real life?’”
The first recorded LARP group was set up in the UK in 1982, and the game had strong presence in America. In the 1990s, the success of Nero and Dragonquest gave LARPing a stake in the Boston market.
But the rise of roleplaying, and Dungeons and Dragons, in the 1970s was not universally appreciated.
In 1979, 16-year-old James Dallas Egbert III unsuccessfully attempted suicide in the tunnels under the campus of Michigan State University, where it was rumored he was lost after a LARP game. He committed suicide a year later. In 1982 Irving Pulling, an active Dungeons and Dragons player, committed suicide in Richmond, Va. His mother Patricia Pulling formed the group Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD), based on her belief that the game encouraged devil worship, suicide, demonology and witchcraft. Pulling’s opinions were further entrenched by Bill Schnoebelen, a self-proclaimed former Wiccan Priest and Satanic Priest, who declared the game, “a feeding program for occultism and witchcraft [which] violates the commandment to… abstain from all appearance of evil.’” (Click here for a more detailed history of the controversies surrounding roleplaying)
These controversies had been countered, and had run out of steam by the end of the 1990s. A stigma still exists, however. Some LARPers still recoil from public identification as role players. Slowick calls them “closet LARPers” and likens the stigma to coming out as a homosexual. The group has “tag” and “do not tag” lists on Facebook to shelter the identities of some players when it puts up photos of its events. (Click here for video of Slowick discussing LARP shame)
Crimson Commonwealth’s Schneiderman accepts the stigma, but suggests that society has warmed to nerd culture. “It’s a nerdy hobby. There’s no denying that…but I think nerdiness has become more of our mainstream in a way it didn’t use to be,” he says.
Those involved in LARPing though, whether accepting of their own hobby or not, find powerful appeals in the game and form strong connections with the characters that they create. “It is living someone else’s life in clips. That’s what I get out of it. It is feeling those moments of excitement or danger or terror or sadness or joy, and picking them up at just the right time and getting to put them down again,” Schneiderman says.
Slowick says that after someone’s character had died, it was not uncommon to find them in tears. “I played Dragonquest originally for eight years before my character died, and that is longer than some relationships. It’s a big deal,” he says.
There’s a meld that happens, Slowick continues, and you eventually begin to think as your character.
“It’s one of the thrills of roleplaying.”