A live action role-playing game, or LARP as it is commonly known, is a form of role-playing game where the participants perform some or all of the physical actions of the characters they play the role of. LARP may be considered a form of storytelling-based improvisational theater. LARP is alternately called live action role-playing or live role-playing.
In character vs. out of character
In traditional tabletop role-playing games a player usually frames the words or actions of his or her character with introductory statements such as "My character says..." or "My character does..." In LARP, since the actions of a player become the actions of the character, a special distinction must be formed between actions a player takes as himself, (out of character, or OOC actions) and actions a player takes as his character (in character, or IC actions). There are often symbols, such as cards, ribbons, or gestures, to symbolize that a player is out of character so the other players know not to interpret his actions as actions of a character. This distinction is also sometimes called "On-role" and "Off-role," or "In Game" and "Out of Game."
Physical vs. symbolic combat
In traditional role-playing games, conflicts are usually resolved with complicated systems using charts, graphs, and dice to produce a random outcome. In LARPs many players feel that dice-based systems interrupt the flow of the game, and use a variety of creative methods to replace them.
One major method to resolve combat is to use actual physical combat. Boffer weapons, usually made of PVC with foam-rubber coating in the US and fibreglass rod covered with foam and coloured latex in Europe, are used in many such systems in order to ensure safety. The object is never to hurt the opponent, but to score hits, which deal fake damage often quantified based on the type of weapon used in the attack. Magic-using characters either throw "spell-packs" (usually small bean bags) at opponents or simply point at their target and shout some words describing the effect. Games using this method are often known as "Boffer" or "Live Combat" LARPs.
Some LARPs have their own crew for specialeffects (FX) rigging effects of magic using pyrotechnics, smokemachines and smelly material. These crews are often recruited from young film and theatre technicians wanting to create a total film experience with the effects engulfing the participants. These crews might have in-character first-aid roles acting making sure wounded people look bloody and wounded as they are carried from the scene of battle back to their camps, so that storylines based on healing and caring might develop.
A not so well known method is the live steel combat system that a few larps in Scandinavia has developed the last 10 years. The Steel system derives from the Boffer system, but encourages style and realism as an alternative to the gameist focus of winning, using the "Boffer"-system. Only players trained and tested by the organisers prior to the game are entitled to carry and use weapons, the weapons are of steel, but not sharpened. This system limits the physical fighting to the weaponcarrying minority of the game, while the other players may pursue other goals and stimuli as murder mysteries, lovestories, feudal plots, cultural clashes, ritual magic or other religionbased storylines. (The Official Steel System Page (http://www.larp.com/galadrim/lyktsken/blankvapenregler.html))
The other major method is to use symbolic combat. Sometimes a system like Odds and Evens or Rock, Paper, Scissors, where two players throw hand symbols to generate a random outcome, is employed. In other cases, cards or dice are used, although one major advantage of symbolic combat is that you don't need any physical objects to do it. Another benefit of symbolic systems like this is that many more conflicts besides physical combat can potentially be resolved using symbolic methods.
Some LARPs avoid combat whenever possible, leaving only minimal or non-existent combat systems. Many murder-mystery LARPs lack any combat system, the focus is entirely on social interaction and investigation. Some games that discourage and penalize combat might use very simple rules, like pointing a toy gun at someone and shouting "Bang!" means that the target character is dead.
Genre and setting
LARPs can have as many genres and settings as novels, plays, or movies. However, there are some very common genres that comprise the most common LARPs.
Fantasy genre LARPs are usually set in pseudo-historical worlds that are inspired by legends and fantasy literature. These settings generally have very low technology, some magic, and non-human species based on myth and legend. Examples include Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Faeries, etc.
Sci-fi genre LARPs are a little less common but take place in futuristic settings with high technology and possibly aliens but usually without magic. Examples include combat-heavy post-apocalyptic LARPs, dystopian LARPs, utopian LARPs, space opera and cyberpunk.
Historic LARPs take place in our world, at some point in history. They can vary from a 1930s murder mystery to a feudal Japanese Samurai story. Historical accuracy is often prized in these LARPs, and there are similarities with Historical reenactment.
Gothic-Punk LARPs bear mention because they are so popular and account for the spread of LARPing in America. Published by White Wolf Game Studio under the brand name Mind's Eye Theater, Gothic-Punk setting LARPs take place in the World of Darkness, a world much like our modern world, but with a few important differences. Supernatural creatures, like vampires, werewolves, ghosts, mummies, and changelings are real in the Gothic-Punk settings, and are in fact the roles taken on by the players. White Wolf also publishes a number of Historic Gothic-Punk style games, such as Dark Ages: Vampire and Wild West: Werewolf.
"Contemporary" LARPs occur in the present without the presence of the supernatural or supertechonological. Some are set in social situations easily recognizable to most players, such as a wedding, a family dinner or a high school class. Others are set situations that few players will have had direct experience of, such as organized crime, a Hollywood movie set, the UN security council.
Just like tabletop role-playing games, LARPs can be continuing campaigns (usually with custom-made characters) or single-evening once-off events (usually with pre-written characters). The worldwide trend seems to be the campaign-type LARP, but once-off LARPs are the norm in the South African community.
The history of LARPs has not been the subject of formal historical analysis, but some background is known.
Technically, many childhood games are simple LARPs (even though they don't bear that name), and so in that sense LARPs may have been around since the dawn of humanity.
Fantasy LARPs (as distinct from pure historical re-enactments) probably originate with the founding of the Society for Creative Anachronism in Berkeley, California on May 1, 1966. A similar group, the Markland Medieval Mercenary Militia, began holding events on the University of Maryland in 1969. These groups were largely dedicated to accurately recreating medieval history and culture, however, with only mild fantasy elements. It was only after the publication of the first role-playing game (Dungeons & Dragons) in 1974 that LARPs truly came into their own.
Since LARPs rarely rely on print publications the way tabletop roleplaying does, but is dependent on local ideas and expertise, live roleplaying has been "invented" almost from scratch several times, though usually with the rumour of foreign LARPs as an inspiration. This has led to LARP practices and histories being extremely diverse.
American and UK History
Among the oldest documented fantastic live-combat groups is the Dagorhir Outdoor Improvisational Battle Games (Dagorhir), which was founded by Bryan Weise in the Washington, DC area in 1977, and is still in operation today. The International Fantasy Games Society (IFGS), also live-combat but with a complex rules system more clearly influenced by Dungeons and Dragons, was started in 1981 in Boulder, Colorado. IFGS took its name from a fictional group in the novel Dream Park (by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes), which described highly realistic, futuristic LARPs. At about the same time (but before 1981), an Assassins' Guild was created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, Massachusetts, to pursue "killer" or "assassin" style live-combat games. One of the earliest UK clubs was Treasure Trap, formed in 1982.
In 1981, the Society for Interactive Literature (SIL) was founded by Walter Freitag, Mike Massamilla and Rick Dutton at Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts. The club's first public event (called Rekon I) in February, 1983, at the Boskone Science Fiction Convention, probably marked the first fully modern theatre-style LARP game. A follow-on event (Reklone) was hosted by a different group at the Unicon Science Fiction Convention in Maryland in March.
Amtgard is one of the most widespread groups in the US, and has chapters world wide as well. It began in 1983 in El Paso, TX.
NERO live action roleplaying is another of the most widespread groups in the US, and was launched in 1988 by Ford Ivey in the Boston, Massachusetts, area.
LARP has been played in Russia since at least the 1980s. The Russian word for LARP translates simply as "role-playing", since tabletop RPGs were unknown in Russia at the time LARP was invented or introduced there. Russian live role-playing is often practised under the banner of "Tolkienism" or Tolkien fandom. Regional traditions vary greatly in their history and practice, though the now defunct Soviet "Young Pioneers" organisation and the networks between former members seems to have played some role in spreading and coordinating the idea of live role-playing.
In the early 1980s, the Swedish LARP group Gyllene Hjorten  (http://www.larp.com/hjorten/) started a LARP campaign that is still going strong. This is probably the first LARP event in the Nordic countries. LARP in Finland started in 1985 and Norway was initiated in 1989, more or less simultaneously by groups in Oslo and Trondheim.
The Nordic LARP traditions, though usually invented independently of each other, have developed striking similarities and are also notably different from English language and German language LARPs. These differences are most obvious in the Nordic LARPs' scepticism towards game mechanics, a tendency to limit combat and magic - seeing these as "spice" rather than a necessary ingredient in LARP - and an emphasis on immersive environments where anachronisms and out of play elements (off-elements) are avoided. The setting and roles may be given to the participants by the organizers, or suggested by the player to organizers, in either case usually based on a dialogue between the player and organizer. "Character sheets", in the manner of tabletop RPGs, are for the most part not used.
When the game starts it lives its own life, wholly directed by the players (some predetermined events are often scheduled). A typical Swedish or Norwegian game lasts 2-5 days and has anywhere from fifty to hundreds of participants. A typical Danish or Finnish game lasts between four hours and a full day. Rules are designed for combat injury simulation and normally emphasize roleplaying of damage rather than abstract hitpoints (though this was not always so), featuring either padded weapons or live steel. Each gaming organization uses custom rules, but simplicity and similarities make this less cumbersome than it would at first seem.
The annual Knutepunkt conference, first held in 1997, has been a vital institution in establishing a Nordic live role-playing identity, and in establishing the concept of "Nordic LARP" as a unique approach. A live-roleplaying avant-garde movement, which pursues radical experimentation and the recognition of role-playing as a form of art, has been connected to the Knutepunkt conferences. The scope of the Knutepunkt conference has expanded rather rapidly over the last few years with participants showing up from numerous non-Scandinavian countries. The last 2 or 3 years has seen participants from USA, Germany, France, Italy and Russia as well as from the main Scandinavian countries.
The German LARP history is most easily found, by going to the German Larp calendar at Larp Kalender (http://www.larpkalender.de)
The First LARP that has been cataloged is Samhain's Quest II on April 14, 1995, although Draccon 1 in 1991 is generally held to be the first event of significance. LarpWiki.de has a page on history (http://www.larpwiki.de/cgi-bin/wiki.pl?LarpHistorie).
South African history
LARP in South Africa is mostly single evening events of fewer than four hours in length, with 8 to 20 players. Larger, longer-term campaigns are occasionally run, most using World of Darkness: Vampire.
There is a heavy emphasis on roleplaying. In the single evening events this means that there is little use of non player characters, costumes are the norm, and simple game mechanics are used. The standard conflict-resolution systems are symbolic, usually involving dice and very simplified character proficiency statistics. Special abilities are generally handled using cards that the player using the ability shows to those affected by it. Players are usually given detailed character sheets, sometimes of up to eight pages. These included background, goals and knowledge of other characters.
Cape Town is reputed to be the LARPing capital of South Africa, and there is a large archive of LARPs written by Capetonian designers (see under External Links). In recent years, there has been an increase in LARP activity in other communities, such as Johannesburg.
Research and theory
The first in a series of annual LARP congresses taking place in the Scandinavian countries, Knutepunkt, was organised in Oslo, Norway in 1997. The name of the convention varies with the organizing country (the meaning of the name being 'nodal point' in the language of the hosting country).
Nordic LARP theory
Nordic LARP theory is mainly bound to the annual Knutpunkt conventions. For an introduction to Nordic LARP theory see the following publications:
- The rec.games.frp.live-action FAQ (http://www.compsoc.man.ac.uk/~richc/lrp/faq/faq.html)
- LarpWiki.org (http://www.larpwiki.org/) - an international wiki style LARP repository
- Rampant Mouse Latex Weaponry - The oldest and largest US source of live-action combat-safe weaponry (http://www.rampantmouse.com)
- Atlanta Interactive Theatre - The Southeasts longest running Larp (http://www.atlantavampire.com)
- LARP Combat Video (http://www.dirty.org/~tom/media/larp.mpeg)
Nordic LARP portals