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?
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.