Monday, August 29, 2011

The "L" Word

No, not "lesbian."

LARP. Live action roleplaying. The place where even gaming geeks fear to tread.

Somewhere, right now, there's a stereotypical D&D group that will laugh you out of their parents' basement if you say the word. Oddly enough, the feeling is mutual.

As much as I've heard about tabletoppers who think LARPers are weird, obsessive people, even for roleplayers, I know LARP people who have never played games on the tabletop and wonder why you'd ever want to gather around a tabletop when you could play something more immersive.

LARP is still reviled and somewhat underground, but is occasionally mentioned to a wider audience.

A bit of history: LARP is how I got into this hobby. I'd heard of D&D, but a newspaper article on LARPing mentioned Vampire: the Masquerade. I'd heard of it, too, but that started the path toward receiving a copy as a gift, and the rest is history.

Cut to three years later. I'd heard about this thing called Avalon, but I had never gone. Then my best friend went, and well, I had to go.

I played for about three years.

It was fun, but had a tendency to be time-consuming. I spent a year or so at this game called SimTerra (they also have a wiki) before drifting away.

Both Avalon and SimTerra are boffer LARPs, which refers to the fact that they have real-time combat wherein you beat your opponent with padded lengths of PVC pipe designed to look like melee weapons. Ranged attacks are performed with spell packets (little cloth pouches filled with birdseed), boffer weapons that lack PVC cores (basically just foam designed to look like a weapon and weighted only by the duct tape that covers it), and even boffer arrows (arrow shafts that have wide, foam heads placed on them; they don't hurt, even at close range).

I was never a fan of boffer LARPs for a couple of reasons. First, they're more unyielding than the old school tabletops. Your old school character might only be as smart and as clever as you are, but at least he can cast magic or swing a sword reliably. Boffer LARPs mean that you're frequently only as accurate as your own abilities allow.

Boffer combat has a second weakness: it doesn't accurately simulate real combat. In real combat, you try to avoid getting hit. In boffer combat, you try to avoid getting hit the most. The strategy is totally different. In a real fight with real weapons, people aren't going to charge at each other, they're going to size up their opponents and hope to get the most out of a single blow. In a boffer fight, you can kill someone by pummeling their feet with rapid-fire strikes — try doing that with a ten to twenty pound sword and see where that gets you. I have spoken to some people who actually know how to swordfight, and they don't like boffer combat, either.

That having been said, boffer combat is neat because it's real-time — everything is fast and flows with the chaos of an actual fight. Combat doesn't really interrupt roleplaying because it's so seamless. Most boffer LARPs are combat-heavy, though, as befits a system where everything is geared toward fast and furious combat.

Since playing boffer LARPs, I played a little Mind's Eye Theatre, but I've mostly played Cthulhu LIVE. It is, hands-down, my favorite LARP system I have so far encountered. The third edition uses an artificial-time combat system, and balances the fact that my character might actually know how to fight with the speed of boffer combat. A typical combat round lasts about a minute, though this may vary from group-to-group (I'm assuming a sizeable combat with, maybe, ten participants).

I've played in several Cthulhu games, and run six (I've helped run a couple more than that, but precise numbers escape me). These games are typically like locked-room murder mysteries, and are typically played tournament-style: rather than making one's own characters, the Game Master writes all the characters. While this prevents you from making your own character, it does ensure that you have something to do, as most characters are at least tangental to the plot at hand. The Game Master of these tournament-style LARPs is very hands-off, typically running combat or answering story questions, but otherwise letting the PCs interact however they like. Since there are only a couple of Game Staff, PCs play all parts — the janitor, neurotic professor, and evil cultist are played by players who only know as much of the plot as their characters would know. These games are also typically one-shot LARPs, so there's typically a whole story arc in four hours or less. That story arc sometimes involves everyone going home, but the climax usually involves some faction attempting to perform its master stroke and touching off all the conflicts in the house. This is almost always unpredictable.

For example, I was once playing a character (the mayor of a small town) who owed money to a recently-released prisoner, because he had hired said prisoner to kill a business rival. I didn't know that the business rival survived by body snatching, and hoped to kill me. All I knew was that I didn't have the money to pay this guy, and I didn't know what I would do. Apparently, just fidgeting and drinking was super-effective, though, because the prisoner and the body thief killed each other about halfway through. It was one of the most successful games I've ever played.

I ran a game involving a secret church in a Soviet village. The KGB agents finally came around, guns blazing. A hidden monster was released in the chaos. Anybody in the house who had access to a weapon used it. There were four survivors out of an initial group of about twenty.

I'd recommend trying LARPing if you have a dramatic bent, or like dressing up in costume. Some are longer than others. Avalon and SimTerra last for an entire weekend. Cthulhu LIVE games typically last a few hours (we usually play with PST Productions or a local group called Sic Semper Tyrannis).

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