When I play roleplaying games, I prefer to play them alone. I’ll make exceptions if the game is really worth it, but even then I’m at least playing within the comforts of my own home. What I really love is having these great fantasy worlds to myself, immersing myself in the lore while mastering the game systems. I can do things at my own pace, without the pressure of having others critique how I’m playing.
That’s why LARP has always seemed strange to me. And not because people deck themselves out in armor and beat each other up in public (I frequently go to metal shows, remember?). No, the strange part to me is how LARP merges the often very secluded pastime of gaming with the very physical, very public demands of an actual sport. Like, it’s one thing to play assassin in the comfort of your own home, armed with mouse and keyboard; it’s another thing entirely to do it in a space where everyone can see you.
So I only felt a small bit of trepidation when I ventured out on a sunny Saturday afternoon with my fellow NitWitty editors to go LARPing for the first time. We joined a local group named Siar Geata Amtgard, who were gracious enough to let a handful of neophytes join the fray. I won’t spend much time on the experience itself (you can read more about that here); instead, I want to share how surprised I was at not only the physical demands of LARP but how it brings the social aspects of RPGs into the physical space.
Let’s Get Physical
Like more conventional sports, LARP requires a lot of space, and the most convenient place to get that is outside. We were lucky enough to have sunny weather that somehow avoided being god-awfully hot — good news for the ones in full LARP regalia. To my surprise, there were no suits of armor on the field; the Siar Geata warriors favored lighter fabrics. Some were tailored to look like snazzy fantasy outfits, while others were more plain and pragmatic. Others just wore shorts and tank tops, which didn’t do much for immersion but made perfect sense given the Southern Californian climate. The other NitWitty editors and I wore light fabric tabards, cut to fit by our own editor in chief — pretty modest garb, nothing too serious, but enough to make me feel at least a little self-conscious when not in the heat of battle.
There is a degree of self-confidence that comes with LARPing that I absolutely admire — especially when it’s played in a popular public park. And I don’t just mean the clothing, I’m talking about LARP as a public activity; it’s definitely not a common sight. I admit, I felt a little self-conscious wearing this flimsy piece of cloth; maybe I’d have felt more at ease hiding behind a helmet? Even so, the other non-roleplaying park-goers seemed content to mind their own business, playing football or barbecuing. We had the added advantage of joining a group of regulars who had established themselves at this location, so their presence was not only expected but accepted. They felt like a part of the park, and by extension, so did I.
For me, this feeds into how I came away from the experience on such a positive note. Gathering as a group lent an air of social acceptance to the entire event, making it so anyone new (like us) felt right at home and blended in with the regulars. The Siar Geata group was even open to inviting onlookers into the fray. Seeing such an inviting outlook really gave me the warm fuzzies, and made me appreciate how out of their way the members went toward making everyone feel welcome and included. Not everyone was going to be as adventurous as us; if I had really been shy, the acceptance I saw from Siar Geata would have gone a long way toward breaking me out of my shell. Not only that, but it would have helped me be part of something awesome.
Speaking of which, we weren’t there to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.” We were there to play war.
New Game Plus
Cursed be the one who scoffs at LARPing being called a “sport.” It takes real physical effort, and as far as I’m concerned that meets the definition. Yes, I know the swords are boffer. Yes, the spells are no weightier than beanbags. But when I had a monk bearing down on me with an eight-foot polearm, knowing he would take like fifteen more hits than normal to take down, the willingness to push my body beyond its normal, sedentary state was all too real.
As I said before, I’ve played plenty of RPGs from behind a TV or computer monitor (and even a few using pen and paper), but this was the first time my heroic actions came from my own body. I had to use my full arm to swing my sword, not just press my finger against a button, and to close the distance to an enemy bowman I had to run there myself. You might think all this seems pretty damn obvious, but I don’t think I had truly grasped the physical effort LARP required until I was tripping and rolling in the grass, trying to stay out of Jordan’s reach. I’m sure with time my own rather pathetic skills would improve, but the commitment to get there would have to be considerable.
For the regulars, fighting seemed natural. It was more than that — at times it was straight-up awe-inspiring. Arrows were fired with deadly accuracy; shields deflected throwing weapons hurled from yards away. We were facing seasoned combatants, and each of them carried the confidence and skill worthy of a bard’s songs. One diligent member, wearing a mask and dressed in all white, reminding me of a knight templar, even spent the breaks between games practicing his stances alone on the field. That dedication and pursuit of improvement — I understood that drive. This was more than a hobby to these lords and ladies.
It was like I had booted up an online game for the first time and had wandered into the high level zone.
What a World, What a World
Combat in LARPing is way different from combat I’ve experienced in other games. No matter how well-rendered a sword strike may be in a video game, or how eloquent a Dungeon Master may describe it, those have nothing on actually landing a blow on your opponent. That actual honest-to-goodness connection of weapon to flesh provided me with an unparalleled tangible satisfaction. Granted, it didn’t happen often, but it happened enough to the point where I would overextend myself, hungry for another foe to defeat. Maybe it was just the adrenaline, but when I was fending off attacks from someone I knew was better than me, even for a few seconds, I felt like the heroes I create in my other games.
Aside from the physical effort, the only cost of LARPing is immersion. When you step off the battlefield to catch your breath, it’s easy to see what it looks like to an outsider looking in: a bunch of people standing in a field, waving foam swords at each other. This is, of course, different with other games. With D&D, players are at the mercy of the DM to paint their surroundings. In video games, environments are rendered in sometimes painstaking detail, drawing you into the digital world the artists have envisioned. That’s the sacrifice for that physicality, that tangible satisfaction that LARP offers. I know that’s nit-picky, but escaping to fantasy worlds is a huge appeal of other games. Things like outfits and sword-shapes help, but they only go so far. Immersion breaks down even faster when you hear spells being shouted, usually in the form of long strings or phrases that describe what’s being done. I still think spellcasting is the most underwhelming part of LARP, but I can understand if there’s no easier way to do it. That said, immersion is a fair trade for feeling like you’re actually there in some fantasy universe, fighting for glory. All it took was putting a sword in my hand and I was half sold on the idea already.
The physicality of LARPing is one part of what makes it feel so authentic and engaging. The other is the community. The weapons may be made of foam, but the social ties are stronger than steel. There was no macho bravado going on, no jerks taking advantage of the fact that they could wail on people with reckless abandon if they really wanted to. There was definitely no one braying in my ears about what a newb I was, as is sometimes the case in online games. Instead, everyone was just there to have a good time. And whaddya know? I certainly had fun.
LARPing offered me a surprising new perspective on the way I play games. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again, but if I do, at least I’ll know what to expect. Maybe I’ll find my own field to practice in; my stances could sure use some work.