What Is Larp?

For all the writing I’ve done about larp, I haven’t made much effort to define it in this space. Larp, or LARP, is an acronym for “live action role play”; it’s a type of game that tells a story, which is acted out in real time by players who improvise all their lines.

Asking, “what is larp?” is a little like asking, “what is painting?” or “what is the novel?” It’s hard to describe and there are a lot of borderline cases that break the rules. Larpers often explain their hobby by use of analogies:

Larp is like…

  • …cops and robbers for adults. (Aka grownup make believe)
  • …an improvised play performed without an audience.
  • …historical reenactment crossed with Dungeons & Dragons.
  • …an art happening from the 1960s.
  • …the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
  • …a genre TV show (Buffy, Xena, Mad Men, Lost) in which you are the star.
  • …those murder mystery dinner parties that were popular in the 1990s.

Essentially, during a larp, a player assumes a character, creates a costume for that character, and meets up with other characters on some sort of a set. The player-characters move through a plot created by the Game Master or GM, who typically organizes the game. Along the way, they sometimes interact with NPCs, or non-player characters, characters played by game staff who provide valuable information, atmosphere, or often, combat encounters.

Larp is an incredibly diverse medium. Some games only last a few hours, while others meet one weekend per month for many years. There are games with minimal set and costuming, and games with fancy big sets that require period-appropriate underwear. There are larps for a handful of people, and larps for hundreds. There are larps set in fantastical worlds with vampires or magic or nano robots, and there are larps set in the real world.

Here are some of the characteristics of larp as a medium:

  • it tells a story. Sometimes, it’s a big epic story — we have to kill this dragon to save the town! — and sometimes, it’s a small, personal story — I have to overcome my tragic flaw in order to find love.
  • no audience. The players serve as their own audience.
  • players behave as their characters would. In tabletop roleplaying games, players describe what they’re doing, “I walk over to the painting and look at it.” In larp, players do what their characters do. If you want to move through the forest without a sound, you have to step carefully so the dry leaves don’t crinkle too much.
  • real time. For the most part, larp occurs in real time, not compressed time. You can’t rush through the boring walk to the dungeon in a larp.
  • dispersed action. Unlike a play, in which the actors are locked behind the fourth wall, in an larp the action is 3-D and simultaneous. There is the possibility for many different plot-important things to be happening at the same time.
  • improv. All larp has improvised dialogue. Most larp has open-ended plot — depending on what the characters choose to do, the game will have one ending or another. Some games script out the ending, in which case the improv lies in how the characters choose to get there.
  • entertainment. Larp is primarily done for fun or to get that art-experience fix. This goes to the “game” aspect of larp. However, once you start getting into larp’s game-ness, it’s a steep fall down the rabbit hole of game theory and you start spouting terms like “magic circle.” Please don’t make me do it, mom!

That’s my best stab at defining larp, though my standpoint is far from the only one out there. A Facebook thread I started on the topic ran to nearly sixty comments, and there’s a lot of aesthetic theory. I’ve doubtless failed to illuminate all of the medium’s characteristics. What else would you add? Would you get rid of anything I’ve said here?

Further reading:

Lars Konzack’s “Larp Experience Design” from Lifelike (free download!) (2007).
Michael Hitchens and Anders Drachen. “The Many Faces of Role-Playing Games” from Issue 1 of the International Journal of Roleplaying (Free download after some clicking around!).

Both of these pieces contain many useful references, for the terminology-obsessed.

18 thoughts on “What Is Larp?

  1. I’d add that larp can be viewed as an ancient, global art form that is as alive as painting, music, literature, etc. Larp is one of the performance arts, connected to but distinct from theater.

    I also think that larp has many more uses besides entertainment:
    education, e.g., Østerskov Efterskole
    research, e.g., the Stanford Prison Experiment (not called a larp, but it used the same medium and form of live action role playing)
    business, e.g., mock trials
    military, e.g, the National Training Center at Fort Irwin
    therapy, e.g., psychodrama

    And larp techniques and styles are being used in religion and intimate role-play (fetish/erotic/sex).

    I also believe that larp, unlike any other art form, utilizes all five senses to create a physical, mental, and emotional experience that can be like a work out. The emotional aspect of those three is what interests me the most, since it’s extremely rare that we have a chance to create, or allow to be created, our own emotional experiences driven in part by ourselves. Usually emotional responses are unexpected reactions to external stimuli (not always, of course). But we can choose to play a dark, dramatic larp that deals with, say, heartbreak and allow ourselves to feel the pain in a protected setting and environment that usually avoids external consequences. I view larp as being an emotional weight room and gym with spotters (or it can be).

    I discuss a lot of this in my essay (free download!): “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing”: http://www.scribd.com/doc/33955116/Understanding-Live-Action-Role-Playing-LARP-Cooler-Than-You-Think

    I am very interested in the four possible outcomes for larps as detailed by Jaako Stenros in the Nordic LARP book: escape (by far the most prevalent in the U.S.), explore (the other portion of U.S. larps), and the ones we have only just begun to use: Expose (real social issues) and my favorite, Impose (the larp’s narrative onto the real world to bend reality, a la The Truth About Marika, Conspiracy for Good or World Without Oil.

    • Hi Aaron,

      I do agree that larp has uses beyond entertainment, but I don’t think its other uses are an essential component of larp the way entertainment is.

  2. I lizzie like the artical. I am part of a Theater company in San Diego Called Circle Circle dot dot. I was wondering if you might be willing to help spread the word of our next show about a group of LARPers and based of actual people amongst your readers? Details on the piece and our company can be found at http://www.circle2dot2.com Check it out.

    THanks

    Patrick

  3. Hey Lizzie

    I think we’re talking terms. I don’t think that larp has to be entertaining to be a larp. In other words, I don’t consider entertainment to be an essential component of larp–neither are the other uses.

    I also don’t think that all larps are games, or that it’s necessary to be a game to be a larp.

    Obviously, most larps are games and used for entertainment, but they don’t have to be: it’s not inherent in the art form’s DNA. At least, in my opinion. The other characteristics you mention, though, I agree, are necessary components of live action role playing. If you add an audience that has no say in the narrative and is there purely as passive viewers, for example, you are leaving the medium of larp and entering theater. But if you have a larp that’s not a game or not meant as entertainment, you can still be in the medium of larp.

    It’s only your last bullet point that I contend is not a required characteristic of the larp medium. The same way that most movies are for entertainment, but not all of them, and to be part of the art of motion pictures doesn’t mean it has to be made for entertainment purposes.

    Aaron

    • Hi Aaron,

      Definitely a term thing. Depends on what “medium” means. For example, I could talk about books as a medium — there are how-to books, novels, essays, etc — or I could talk about the novel as a medium. The novel is a narrower medium than the book. I think performance would be the book-level medium, and larp the novel-level medium. To me, defining it more broadly makes the term less meaningful, because one could define nearly anything as larp. So I necessarily define it as having entertainment as a component, which excludes things like military training exercises, moot courts, being extroverted at dinner parties, etc. from the discussion.

      I’m a little surprised to hear you argue against the “entertainment” requirement, because I know you’re all over larp-as-art, and I think that art necessarily aims at entertainment, an entertainment which, to me, encompasses a specific sort of enlightenment.

  4. Hey Lizzie

    I totally concur with your definition, but mine is just broader for larp.

    I consider larp to be broad like “literature”. I don’t think it’s less meaningful at all, literature is quite meaningful to me. I also don’t think nearly anything can be defined as larp, just like I would say “Huh?” if someone said the Mona Lisa of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s cover of Jimi’s “Little Wing” was literature.

    I also don’t think that art has to be entertaining to be art. I agree with you that art attempts to be enlightening, but not necessarily entertaining. Basically, I consider most any creative human endeavor to be art, and where I start really imposing requirements, filters, or benchmarks is between good art and bad art, and of course that’s subjective. Just like I consider a school’s history or even math textbook to be literature that has a primary aim to be educational before entertaining, so, too, can larp as the medium not be solely driven for entertainment.

    We might also have a a different definition of “entertainment”. Mine is “an enjoyable distraction”. The purpose of entertainment, to me, is not to cause lasting change in a group or individual. If change happens, that’s incidental. It can and does happen, but that’s not what the entertainer sets out to do. Errol Morris’s documentary “The Thin Blue Line”, for example, caused a convicted death row murderer to have his case reopened and his conviction overturned. The movie is still art (motion picture), but I can’t believe that Morris’s aim was to entertain. So, too, I don’t think art has to be entertaining to be art, or larp has to be entertaining or fun to be the art of larp. Again, it might be a crappy larp if it’s NOT entertaining, but it’s still a larp, and still art.

    If, however, you define entertainment in an old-school Latinate root way “ORIGIN late Middle English : from French entretenir, based on Latin inter ‘among’ + tenere ‘to hold.’ The word originally meant [maintain, continue,] later [maintain in a certain condition, treat in a certain way,] also [show hospitality] (late 15th cent.)”, “to hold among”, or to hold people in a certain state, then yes, I can agree that entertainment is a requirement for art and subsequently larp. But I’m using the more modern meaning of the word as “to amuse or evoke enjoyment”. I think that “Fat Man Down” is a larp, and is art, and I don’t want to imagine anyone thinking that it’s entertaining to find the fattest male of the PCs and to spend the next two hours insulting him about his weight.

    For the scenes I wrote for Mike Young’s “The Road Not Taken” (which was a runner up for the 2010-11 larpwriter challenge), I definitely was not thinking or aiming for entertainment, at least how I define it.

    I also don’t consider all larps to be games (most are), which, as I said in your other column, why I am coming around to the term “larp”: because “game” is not a part of the acronym.

    Thanks for letting me ramble.

    • Just to be clear here, I am trading on the ambiguity of the word “entertainment” to encompass both pure entertainment — like say, Charlie’s Angels — and the complex entertainment that comes from art. I agree that “entertainment” means “an enjoyable distraction,” but what some people find “enjoyable” is that art-experience thing, or extreme emotion, etc. And of course, cases on the edge, like Fat Man Down, or Justine, or Passolini’s Salo blur the line. But at core, I think art has to have that voluntary entertainment angle — whether that entertainment means coming to terms with one’s central humanity or crying about genocide into the soup. It can have other aims (to inform, to shock, etc), but if it doesn’t entertain/enligten, or at least aim at that in some way, it isn’t art.

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  6. Lizzie: right. If you think that entertainment can mean crying about genocide, then I agree entertainment is a required aspect of the art of larp.

    I prefer your synonym “enlighten” better, however. ;-)

  7. Hello,

    LARP stands for Live Action Role Playing game, not Live Action Role Play. The game part is often lost in the acronym. LARP is also an acronym, not a definition. But a LARP is most definitely a game. I am an avid larper, and as such have experienced different angles of these games over and over. There are many different kinds of LARPs, you have medieval fantasy settings that mostly resemble the aforementioned Dungeon & Dragons. Which encompass dwarves, elves, magic, and old faiths. There are steampunk LARPs which involve mystical technologies and futuristic settings(and lets be honest, we get a chance to use all those cool new nerf guns that we wish came out when We all were kids). There are vampire games closely resembling a tabletop game from White Wolf called Vampire: The Masquerade. I even have attended a post apocalyptic zombie larp where the whole meaning of the event was to camp out in the woods with friends for a weekend, make an encampment, bunker down, and try and survive.

    All these LARPs are games, made to bring people together in some sort of alternate setting to live out an alternative life in an awkward setting they are not use to.

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  12. I agree with Aaron’s comments about LARP and entertainment. Based on the communities in which I play, staff, and research, however, I’d like to add another point. While I think most LARP is entertaining, it’s not a requirement of the game. The real purpose of the games I play is an emotional investment which exceeds entertainment. Entertainment facilitates this, but is not a requirement of the game. Some people go to LARPs not to be entertained but to create and explore characters; this is especially true on the staff side of things. I think you could feasibly argue that all art is entertainment, but I feel like that might be a shallow definition of art-as-process.

    Also, what are the benefits of extending the definition of LARP to a broader array of activities? While I see the merit in cross-comparative research (especially if LARPers want to end stigmatization of their activity), I also wonder if it’s problematic to have too broad a definition of LARP. It seems like it might overgeneralize individual communities.

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