Live-action role-playing (or LARPing) was born on the fringes of American pop culture, a descendant of much-maligned hobbies like Dungeons and Dragons and other table games.
In LARPing, players spend their weekend dressing up in costumes, adopting elaborate personae, and inhabiting a complex imagined world.
The hobby, like most of “nerd” culture, has become increasingly mainstream.
Across the US, Canada, and Europe, LARPing groups are everywhere. There are more than 30 LARPing organisations in the US, each of which has tens of chapters and thousands of members.
We visited Alliance, one of the oldest live-action-role-playing groups in the country, in central Pennsylvania, last year to figure out what LARPing is all about.
Faire Play, Alliance's headquarters, is a massive barn in Central Pennsylvania. We arrived early Saturday morning just as the LARPers at Alliance were waking up. The players were shaking off a long night. Most had arrived in costume on Friday night and played until nearly dawn.
Most of the players were filing into the 'tavern,' a large room built into the center of the barn. Everyone was waiting in line for eggs, bacon, pancakes, and coffee. Players pay $60 to spend the weekend at Alliance, which covers lodging and meals.
The Alliance headquarters is located on a sprawling 42-acre property. In addition to the tavern, the central barn has bedrooms for players and a backroom full of costumes, weapons, and other assorted LARPing detritus. The back lawn serves as the main battleground and is sprinkled with cabins for players to sleep in.
When we arrived, we were ushered into the backroom to meet Todd, who runs Nine Towers, the LARPing game going on when we were there.
Todd explained that attendees are divided into players and non-playable characters (NPCs). Players dress up, construct their own character, and do whatever they want. The plot of the weekend is pushed forward by the NPCs, who are cast members that assume whatever role the game designers need them to, whether that's a kitchen wench or a mercenary.
Unlike most LARPs, Alliance is not heavily focused on combat, instead emphasising politics, role-playing, and teamwork. That doesn't mean there aren't weapons around though. This is the 'armory' for the NPCs. LARP weapons are made of PVC pipe and wrapped in foam-core and plastic.
Each weekend, the head of plot, Bill (right) writes a story outline for the weekend. The outline contains a series of plot arcs: a weekend-spanning story composed of major events that players react to and hour-long 'modules' where small groups of players break off to enact a quest. Both act as parts of a larger narrative that can span years.
While detailed, the outline allows players to alter the direction of the storyline in hundreds of different ways. On the weekend I attended, the players were framed for the murder of an ambassador. How they reacted to the assassination determined where the story went.
The age of the players varies widely. Some are in their twenties, while others are in their forties and fifties. Most of the older players have been playing for a decade or more. 'It makes for a big generation gap,' says Scott (right). 'Sometimes, I have trouble relating.'
There is a pretty equal ratio of men to women at Alliance. According to Michael Ventrella, who runs Alliance, LARPs were more heavily weighted towards men 20 years ago, but now women love to get in on the role-play.
Most weekends at Alliance attract somewhere between 90 to 120 attendees. On the weekend we attended, the number was closer to 50, because the organisation was testing a new campaign.
Alliance, like most LARPs, used to rent campsites by the weekend to run their games. When the main campsite asked for an exorbitant amount of money to rent the space in 2007, the heads of Alliance joined together to purchase the 42 acres of Faire Play.
The property turned out be perfect, giving the group privacy to conduct battles and the ability to build structures that fit their needs. Three other LARPing groups rent out Faire Play from Alliance, which provides money for upkeep and the construction of new cabins and features on the property.
After breakfast, the NPCs prepared for the first event of the day. Bill (on the right) explained to the other NPCs that they were going to be mercenaries attacking the town of Nine Towers. Before sending them out, Bill made them recite the 'bad guy' speech from Wreck-It Ralph: 'I am bad and that is good...'
Once the battle broke out, it was chaos for about 20 minutes. Players jumped between skirmishes, swung their weapons wildly, and shouted 'spells' or 'attacks' at other players. Players must call out their attacks so others know how to react.
The system can make battles a yelling match, as players shout, 'Plus 5! Plus 7! Disarm! Shatter!' For someone who doesn't know what they are doing, combat can be bewildering.
The skill of more veteran players comes out in combat even if they are of a lower level. Joe, who has been playing for more than 20 years, rips through the battlefield with his sword and shield.
In fights between the NPCs and the players, the goal is to make it challenging but not impossible. Eventually, the players always win. 'We want to make it fun so the players get to use their abilities and still be challenged,' said Bill.
After the battle, some players lay 'dead' on the field. Others catch their breath and regroup about the events that have just taken place. Combat can be rigorous and not everyone is in peak physical condition.
In between the major events are hour-long 'modules' that engage a smaller group of players. Modules could be something like killing a monster that is plaguing a townsperson or searching a dungeon for treasure. The basement at Alliance is made with movable walls and an assortment of props to accommodate the different modules.
One of the NPCs got covered with fake scars and make-up to become 'Foothand,' a mutated monster that the players must kill. He had to sit in a kiddie pool filled with a solution that glows in the dark to set the scene for the sorcerer's laboratory.
Some modules happen in the woods, which take up the majority of the property. There are campsites, tree-houses, and structures for players to interact with. Here, a small group of players whose characters are gypsies have a clandestine meeting with a 'relative' of theirs, who had a prisoner.
The players stay in character and play nonstop until Sunday evening. That's when they all head to a nearby Italian restaurant to recap the weekend's events.
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