I Caught a Fish THIS BIG: Realism, Tall Tales & American Larp

In Europe, a lot of larpers care about historical accuracy, or so I’m told. The “360 degree” larpers want illusion so complete that one could mistake an “Old West town” for an Old West town, right down to the period undergarments. Even the medieval boffer larpers have costumes that look historical and are made of period-appropriate materials.

In contrast, American larpers just don’t care about historical accuracy that much; sure, they want the game world to be consistent and feel real, but (outside of reenactment) they’re not fanatical about it. We wear rayon, polyester, and sometimes tennis shoes to medieval larps. “Wench” costuming is prevalent, even though the whole corset-skirt-chemise combo doesn’t hail from a real historical period. It simply looks “medieval” in the most generic sense.

I can’t help but attribute this difference to the United States’ lack of ancient history — we’re newbies compared to the old world.  For games set in worlds before 1500, we have no national barometer in a physical sense — abandoned castles, monoliths, etc — of what accuracy might look like. If you’re in Massachusetts, sure, there are old churches and buildings dating from the 1700s. If you’re in Topeka Kansas, the date is much more recent. We don’t feel our history; we don’t live alongside it the way Europe does.

Medieval Disneyland

Medieval larp is a way of creating and reclaiming a shared primordial past, a past of mythic heroism. Despite our country’s more modern origins, we’re preoccupied with medievalism, which perhaps grows out of our own lack of a medieval past. We’re obsessed with recreating it and living it. Consider Dungeons & Dragons, the first roleplaying game, the wildly popular World of Warcraft, and the stateside prevalence of medieval boffer larp and battle games. Sure, these games aren’t realistic — they contain stuff that never existed like elves and fireballs, but still, it constitutes an attempt to forge a connection to a past that has never existed for us.

To me, the larp worlds created in the U.S. remind me of Umberto Eco’s book Travels in Hyperreality, a loose collection of essays about Eco’s journeys through America’s simulacra.  A simulacrum, according to philosopher Jean Baudrillard, is a copy or simulation of something that never existed. So Disney World is a simulacrum — it’s not a recreation of something that actually exists in real life. Rather, it’s an imitation of Walt Disney’s fairy-tale fantasy made concrete. In the U.S., we don’t have concrete ancient history, but we do have simulacra.

Simulacra are part of the hyperreal — a fantasy made indistinguishable from reality — a fantasy or fiction that seems truer than what really is. For example, Cinderella’s Castle at Disney world looks like a medieval castle, but it’s not a reproduction of any particular castle or medieval style of architecture — it simply looks “medieval.” Somehow, the feeling of “medievalness” has been concentrated, and eventually, this unreality takes the place of the historical medieval in our minds.

European larpers have a concrete historical standard by which to judge their costumes — they live alongside their history and can imitate it. On the other hand, Knight Realms players and other American larpers base their costumes on other simulacra — stuff they’ve seen in Lord of the Rings, stuff that seems medieval, that is evocative of the medieval. Historical accuracy is simply irrelevant.

Tall Tales

In America, we don’t have myth; we have tall tales from the frontier. There’s Paul Bunyan, a giant logger with a huge pet blue ox, Babe, who dug the Grand Canyon when he dragged his axe behind him. John Henry famously raced a steam drill and won only to die with his hammer in his hand. Who could forget Pecos Bill, raised by a pack of coyotes, who lassoed a tornado and rode a giant catfish down the Rio Grande?

These tall tales concern men who are larger than life; they describe exceptional people who take extraordinary risks and accomplish super-human feats.

The set up of the medieval fantasy boffer larp Knight Realms echoes these tall tales. According to the Knight Realms website, “Every PC in this game is a ‘hero’ in the Knight Realms world. They are above and beyond the normal man.”

All of the player-characters at Knight Realms are considered better than the normal human, which is why they can dispatch many of the non player characters with aplomb. The irony is, of course, that when everyone is extraordinary, the extraordinary becomes normal. My priest may be awesome compared to the game world in general, but compared to others in town, she’s barely average. Because everyone else is also exceptional, it’s hard to stand out, which may create competition among players for the spotlight during a plot-point or other scene.

Perhaps our cultural tendency toward hyperbole, as evidenced through our national tall tales, explains why larps that aim at social realism are few and far between. We don’t play commoners with interesting emotional lives; we want to play characters of mythic, steel-driving stature.

Is this a uniquely American phenomenon? Or do larpers in other countries prefer to play larger-than-life characters too?

14 thoughts on “I Caught a Fish THIS BIG: Realism, Tall Tales & American Larp

  1. I loved this article as an analysis of most Americans’ relationship to medieval European history, but I was a bit troubled by the way medieval European history was treated as the only history.

    North America has all kinds of evidence of ancient habitation. I grew up around the hill mounds of the Ohio valley; my elementary school had a serpent mound behind it. All across rural America, kids pick up “arrow heads” and collect them. Illegal pot hunting is a big business in the American Southwest. Kansas, as a matter of fact, has fantastic examples of rock art dating back thousands of years. It is patently false to claim that Americans live in an environment without visible history. We do. It’s just not European history.

    I’ll admit, the actual history of the land is outside the scope of an article that focuses on larps set in pseudo-European settings, so I don’t mind that you didn’t go into detail. I just think it’s impolite, as well as grossly incorrect, to claim that we don’t live in an ancient landscape.

    • I take your point: there is history in America that occurred long before the European colonists got here (as you mentioned, beyond the scope of this post). But I still don’t feel that it is history with the same visible physical impact that Europe has — there aren’t many standing structures that remain. You might say that thanks to colonialism, the subtleties of our history have been hidden; if you want to see it, you have to look for it, in the same way one has to search to find arrowheads. We are alienated from that ancient history; in fact, in some ways our country is founded on eradicating it.

      And certainly too, my take is slanted since I grew up on the East Coast, where the evidence of former habitation is nonexistent.

      I’d also say that we don’t play the pre-colonial history of America in larp. So sure, there are serpent mounds and the remnants of the cliff-dwellers in Mesa Verde, etc., that might inspire historical accuracy, except that we don’t appear to play Native American themes or settings (at least I’ve never heard of a culturally sensitive Native American larp). In fact, to do so might feel culturally impermissible; it’d amount to racial masquerade, and with it, the potential to be truly offensive.

      So rather, it’s not that we don’t have ancient human history in America, it’s that we choose to play European history (perhaps because much of our country, predominantly composed of descendents of European immigrants, does not identify with/understand the mythos/struggle of Native American peoples) and we don’t have standing structures to serve as references to that past.

  2. I see your point. I’ve often wished there were good, sensitive Native American larps, or larps that featured native cultures, but I think most of us who aren’t of native descent are opting to avoid playing with a culture that isn’t ours. It’s sticky.

    Meanwhile, we have Hollywood’s treatment of European history as our only real visual touchstone- which shows us A) things that aren’t true, and B) that things that aren’t true still make fun stories. Maybe all of American larp is a little bit steampunk 🙂

  3. Another great article, Lizzie, thanks.

    I’e bene trying to figure out why medieval fantasy larps are so prevalent in America; I’d say it’s about 60% of the larps out there, with 30% being World of Darkness and 10% “other”.

    My theory is that this modern larp movement in America drew from four parents: The Society for Creative Anachronism (founded in Berkeley in the late 60’s), the Renaissance Pleasure Faire (founded in Southern California in the late 60’s), the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game, and the novel “Dream Park” by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. All of which focused on the fantasy medieval genre.

    I think America continued this trend for a few reasons:
    A. We have a lot of land that can be reserved to hold events in. It’s easier and cheaper to get a campsite than a historical structure for a larp. I’ve thought about having a larp at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, for example, but we’d never get full run of the place without each player paying $1,000 or more (if at all). Our historical sites are too precious to allow fun and games on them, This is sad, because I think this could be a great additional revenue stream for America’s endangered (budget cut) structures.

    I think it was Neil Gaiman who wrote “England has stories in its past, America has stories in space (area).” We are a big nation, you have to travel to get the myths and stories. In Europe, stay where you are and dig into the past.

    B. Most larpers in America come from a gamer/gamist desire to “win” and defeat enemies. This leads us to foam weapons. For whatever reason, nerf guns didn’t take off as a widespread larp prop (yes, there are some out there, but they are not the majority). It’s easier to make a cool looking foam sword, easier to use it, etc. Because of that, we trend towards the fantasy medieval, when weapons like that were common. This goes for other props/costumes, etc., it’s easier to make lower-tech, handcrafted stuff than futuristic electronics.

    C. I don’t know why we don’t have more AmerInd larps as a theme. It’s probably a white liberal guilt for the horrible treatment of Native Americans by our European ancestors. After all, America is largely a country of immigrants from Europe. I think you’re right, we want to hearken back to our ancestral knights and nobles. This isn’t everyone, and not even me, but I think it’s the majority.

    D. Gamist players are familiar with tropes of D&D, and can easily understand the lore, creatures, races, etc., of a fantasy setting. They’ve played WoW for forty hours a week for five years, they get it. New stuff, new genres are often not as well known, and if I’ve learned anything about humans is that most people are naturally distrustful of things they don’t understand. Best stick with what you know.

    E. Finally, the #1 purpose of larp in America is escapism. Most of them want to leave their troubled mundane lives behind and into a realm of heroes, where they can affect meaningful change in the world? (as opposed to their real life)

    This is unfortunate, because there are three other purposes larps can have, and all four of these are described in the Nordic LARP book, which is probably one of the best books I’ve read in my life.

    The other three are:
    Exploration (why not explore a historical incident, or event, or person, or dilemma)? Some fantasy larps are explorations of their world, yes, and some people go for that, but few want to explore the treatment of Native Americans in the 1800’s or civil rights in the 60’s.

    Expose – The Nordic LARPs occasionally use larp to expose a social ill or hidden aspect of their culture. “Gang Rape: The LARP” was made to reveal that the real-world laws (in Sweden, I think) about rape were antiquated and designed to protect the rapist. I doubt American larp designers want to address racism in their larp, even in a fantasy one…though maybe there is some of that. I know the one I just played in had an elves vs. humans split occurring, and there was incidents of genocide in the past, but we didn’t really get into the aspects of this as a metaphor for racism in the real world. It’s all just a harmless pretend game, right?

    Impose – this is the purpose of larp that I am most interested in, where the creators of a larp seek to actually change the real world by larp. Either use the larp as a blunt tool for banging the change into place, or making the world more like the larp. System Danmarc was one of these. Here in America, I’d say the ARG “World Without Oil” was the best example of this, but this type of larp is rare.

    Uhmmm…sorry, I rambled.

    I completely concur with the thesis of this entry, though I think the evidence behind that is more complicated than what’s written.

  4. Caroline — I like the idea of stateside larp as “a little bit steampunk”

    Aaron — Thanks for the kind words and the interesting thoughts.

    Just to clarify, I didn’t want to make a claim in this post that medieval larps are prevalent here because we don’t have history; as you rightly point out that’s a far more complex issue.

    I wanted to make the smaller claim that historical accuracy in costuming is less important to Americans than to European larpers in general (and like all generalities, there will be larpers/larps that disprove the point), in part because we’re young as a society, comparatively speaking and we don’t “feel” history.

    And a couple more thoughts:

    – The gamist angle in the states has been overstated in larp, but I don’t think it has to be that way; if you build it, they will come. I was pretty shocked to discover the whole Forge/Indie RPG scene after I finished my book — those folks seem to have design goals that are similar to Nordic arty larpers, but for some reason, they and the larpers don’t party together as much as they should.

    – American Indian larp. At Knudepunkt last year I had an interesting discussion with an Israeli who wanted to run a larp with Palestinians about the colonial issue. He viewed it as a way to potentially foster understanding between people on different sides of the issue. Then, he asked me and Sarah why we didn’t play Native Americans in larp in the states. I think it goes beyond liberal guilt — after all, what better way to indulge in said guilt than to place oneself in the role of a Native American?

    I think there’s a reluctance to portray oppressed populations that derives from the unpleasant history of racial masquerade in the US. This gets into some American Studies kind of stuff about who has the right to tell certain narratives, and how oppressed populations have special knowledge about their oppressors that derives from the fact of oppression (for example, many black women have special knowledge about hair, thanks to a beauty standard that elevates European styles and textures). One of the reasons black face is so offensive, for example, is due to the history of minstrelry (white people telling a constructed narrative about the “happy” slave). If I make a larp about American Indians, I, as a white person, am constructing a narrative about what it means to be an American Indian that may bear little relation to what it is actually like.

    This is a very long-winded way of saying that I think such a larp would be valuable, but that it would need to be constructed with great sensitivity and care, and with collaborators from the culture in question.

  5. Right, historical accuracy in costuming, that was the point, sorry.

    My experience is that my group often runs historical larps, and we often strive for accuracy in all aspects: the Roman banquet larp run years ago taught us all how to roll ourselves into togas, and we had a genuine Roman meal that my wife nearly killed herself making with a hot plate, one sink, and a microwave (for about 20 people). The food was accurate, the preparation couldn’t be, feasibly. The Horatio Hornblower larp campaign (“Master and Commander”, from Napoleonic wars) had a pretty high costuming veracity, at least by the oodles of emails telling us all about it from the history PhDs running it.

    Of course, I think we’re the freaks here in that we’ve done historical larps. Most larps occur in a NeverNever Land, so costuming is whatever allows for mobility, vision, durability, and comfortable temperature. It also often has to be versatile enough to be used in many different (but thematically similar) larps. If I spent close to $1000 on a handmade suit of larp-ready plate armor, I’d be using it with every character I could, even if it was plastic and not actual metal.

    There’s an interesting article in Playground #3 about feminine roles in Nordic Larps. If costuming is so important, what about the status of women in a historical setting? Do we ascribe to that as well?

    I have just started dabbling in the indie RPGs myself, I see them as very close to what I am trying (failing?) to do with larps. I am interested in them, and I am trying to get my fellows in with them as well, but there’s only so many days in one’s lifetime.

    As to Native Americans in larps: it would be good to see that in a larp; however, I avoid even saying “Cowboys and Indians” as an example of larp that people can relate to, simply because of the stigma attached to the atrocities committed.

    And there’s definitely a danger of whitewashing this, which is another interesting look at larp: why can’t we portray people of another culture? I know one player that did play in the Limbo game in blackface (this was a private event at a private home, of course). He went as Sammy Davis Jr.

    There was some talk about this at this year’s Intercon, a panel on culture in larp. Personally, I don’t want to tell anyone that they can’t do a larp about something, nor do I want anyone telling me that I can’t do a larp about x. My defense would be research and exploration. Instead of assuming I know what it’s about, I’d need to spend some heavy time with primary sources to get as much detail and info out as I could to handle it as respectfully and professionally as possible. And if that larp leads to a greater understanding of the issue or culture, I don’t see how it could be bad. Yes, I agree with you: I’d love to have collaborators on the issue, but if that’s not possible, that shouldn’t be a dealbreaker.

    I think a lot of people back off from getting too deep into anything in a larp, because it can reveal ugliness that they are trying to escape from. In a historical larp with accurate costuming, there is almost no chance there would be armor fitted for women (if medieval). Most characters would be peasant farmers anyway. If accuracy goes to costumes, does that mean crapping in an outhouse and sleeping together in one room?

    Despite my rampant liberalism, I am not so PC to say that I as a straight white male can’t construct a narrative in any art medium about a person of color, female, or homosexual. Will I get the voice right or accurate? Not unless I do a shload o’ research and investigation, but that’s the fun part. Also, in larp, the narratives are always fiction and communally controlled. If I ran a larp about the abuses heaped upon AmerIndians, does that mean I’m doing it all over again fer reals? I don’t think so.

    What I’d love to do, however, is encourage non-whites aged 18-40 to make up their own larps that aren’t focussed on the European medieval experience. There’s a lot of things I’d love to see, but that’s me.

    • Re: Feminine roles, I am reminded of something a Nordic larper (can’t remember which one) told me, which is that in Nordic arty larp, it’s not about making characters who are equal in power, but creating characters that are equally interesting to play, which I think is a good distinction.

      I do think that larp should be a safe place for people to explore alternate points of view, and that this includes men creating stories about women, white people creating stories about communities of color, straight people creating stories about the gay community etc. The alternative, not to play stories about demographics that we don’t belong to, is also problematic; it means whitewashing the narratives we play, denying the existence of these groups. So I so think that such ventures ought to be undertaken with caution, research, and if at all possible, participation from the communities in question.

  6. Pingback: I Caught a Fish THIS BIG: Realism, Tall Tales & American Larp ... | LARP | Scoop.it

  7. Pingback: Solmukohta Ahoy » Journalist, Editor, Author of Leaving Mundania | Lizzie Stark

  8. Pingback: Wyrd Con 2012: Larp Meets Transmedia >> Lizzie Stark

  9. Pingback: My Gen Con Pilgrimage » Lizzie Stark

  10. Pingback: Don't Touch or I'll Sue: American larp... » Lizzie Stark

  11. I found this thread because I’m writing a colonial era LARP (1690s)
    Native Americans is a huge component to the story, so I thought I’d see how other Native American LARPS are being handled…
    There aren’t any.
    Sadly, this thread is about the only thing I found besides foam axes and revealing costumes.

    • There are some. You might look at the Czech larp Hell on Wheels, or check out some of the Western larps in the free downloadable book Nordic Larp.

      I would also urge you to explore the Indie + channel “Gaming as Other” for advice on how to include Native Americans in the planning and execution of this larp. The scholar Gabriel de Los Angelos has been doing research on larp and Native Americans.