What is LARP?


On Wednesday 13th December, we will be running a horror-themed LARP for members of the Games Research Network at MMU. LARP stands for “live action role play”, and may be sometimes called LRP or “live gaming”. LARP was once the subject of derisive mockery in mainstream culture - the 2008 movie, Role Models, provides one particularly excruciating example. However, with the rise of broader “geek culture” to the mainstream, LARP in the UK is becoming more visible and more popular (see this recent article on “The Art of LARP”). Elements of LARP (costume, staged dramatic scenes, live character interaction) are increasingly incorporated into theatrical events and tourist attractions, such as the zombie walk, ghost tours and immersive theatre experiences. But LARP is slightly different to interactive tours and theatrical events, because it is also a game. LARP games are collaborative affairs that operate using a complex set of (largely unspoken) arrangements and set of formalized rules governing character interaction. Although sharing fundamental similarities in operating features, the experience of LARP is quite distinct from that of playing tabletop games, board games, or video games, due to their focus on embodied immersion and the way they require players to interact with their physical surroundings. Usually, players devise their characters in advance of the game and arrive at a specified game location knowing something of the setting and concept, although the full plot is revealed through gameplay. LARP demands immersive character roleplaying (often over 24 hours or more) as players interact with each other and their physical surroundings to solve puzzles, investigate mysteries or defeat enemies. Usually, LARP also involves some form of pantomimed or “safe” combat (with foam or latex weaponry).

As with most gaming subcultures, LARP has developed its own terminology (check out Laura’s useful LARP glossary here) to communicate game practices, and this terminology (along with playing style) does differ by region. However, there is a distinct divide located in the practice of the hobby; one cannot simply “talk” LARP, it has to be performed. Media representations continue to focus on the activity as spectacle, however, and representations such as the Role Models movie, this BBC article on “the rise of live roleplay”, and the cult movie, Knights of Badassdom (2013), tend to focus on fantasy-themed LARP events, which are generic cousins to the fiction inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1949). However, recognition is growing that LARP is both incredibly diverse and an international phenomenon. There are horror-themed events (e.g. Aeon Horror LARP); post apocalyptic scenarios (e.g. Wasteland UK), Live Cthulhu and “Weird” horror LARP (e.g. The Dark Door), steampunk and Neo-Victorian settings (e.g. Victoriana), and science fiction-themed events (e.g. the “Aliens” inspired Alone games run by Mandala LRP), to name only a few UK games.

The aims of Weird and Horror themed LARP differ somewhat to the big fantasy festival LARP events most often featured in the news media. Horror LARPs tend to be run on smaller scales, with fewer players. They aim at an immersive experience designed to elicit real terror and, in some cases, break down the barrier between player and character. There is also an element of delight and playfulness in such terror. Chloé has written about, for example, the pleasures of becoming a monster, or turning into a zombie. Weird and horror-themed LARP also aims to make players’ experience of space strange. Game sites are transformed, becoming threatening, claustrophobic and disorienting. Finally, players are (often) not playing “to win”. Many don’t even expect their characters to survive. Thus, horror-themed LARP tends to pervert the ludic aims associated with most gaming experiences.

We don’t want to give too much away about our LARP and so spoil any surprises for the players, but we will report back afterwards. The game is aimed to induct first-timers into the world of LARP and provide a taster of the kind of experiences horror-themed LARP might elicit.

Chloé Germaine Buckley and Laura Mitchell

*The image that accompanies this piece is of Chloé translating an eldritch ritual under a bed, by candlelight, whilst hiding from monsters during “Ghost Stories” – a horror larp run by The Dark Door (Photo credit: Mark Wynn).