Welcome, reader, to An Accessible Guide To Roleplaying, or A Ladies’ Primer On Pretending To Be Somebody Else For Six Hours On A Saturday. I’m Annie Blitzen, the Virgil to your Dante on this daunting journey. It has come to my attention that you aren’t entirely clear about the finer points of live-action roleplaying, which is very understandable. It’s a hidden world, and its denizens have a reputation for being less than welcoming. Allow me, then, to equip you with the knowledge necessary for an expedition among them.
Let us begin by ensuring everyone is familiar with the terminology. If you find I’m telling you things you already know, marvelous. Skip ahead a bit, if you like.
You may be wondering what a LARP is, or what a “parlor” LARP in particular is. You may also have some preconceived notions, possibly because you saw a video clip one time of a boy shouting “Lightning bolt!” Thus, let us address the essentials.
A LARP is a “Live-Action RolePlaying game.” A roleplaying game (often called a “tabletop roleplaying game,” which is a different thing from a video game RPG, even though RPG stands for “roleplaying game”) is a fancy game of make-believe. The players all pretend to be someone they’re not, and a “game master” or “storyteller” narrates what’s happening in the world around them and plays all the other characters. It’s a bit like improvisational theatre, but the goals are different. There are rules that govern what characters are good at, what they’re bad at, and what happens when they attempt difficult things or fight. Usually, all of this involves sitting around a table in someone’s mother’s basement, eating potato chips, and rolling dice.
Many people think of Dungeons & Dragons when they hear “roleplaying,” but that isn’t the most pertinent example for our purposes. Historically, the most widely played parlor LARP games have been closely based on Vampire: The Masquerade, by White Wolf Publishing.
A LARP is what happens when you play a roleplaying game in a way that doesn’t solely involve sitting around a table. The key difference is that in a tabletop game, the player (the role you are most likely to wind up in, as a new player) controls a character and describes what that character does, interspersed with occasionally acting out the character’s words. In a LARP, players are almost always “in character,” acting out the character’s words and actions. Rather than saying, “I shake her hand,” the player actually shakes the hand of whoever’s playing “her.”
Many people I discuss LARPing with for the first time think of “boffer LARPs,” though they don’t usually know the term. These are events in which certain persons hit one another with fake weapons, Nerf guns, and/or small balls or packets of birdseed at one another to simulate combat, spell-casting, or what have you. Parlor LARPs are the ones in which you don’t hit people. Boffer LARPs usually happen in a park, perhaps a state park out in the middle of nowhere, perhaps for an afternoon or an entire weekend.
Parlor LARPs happen, as one might guess, in someone’s parlor. This is not a thing fashionable people actually call any of the rooms in their house, which gives you an idea of the pretentious sort of mindset that can sometimes be associated with them. They are often held on Saturday nights on college campuses, or at someone’s house, or at a local community center. They usually cost something in the region of $5 for the evening to cover decorations, rental fees, and other incidentals.
Where a tabletop roleplaying game usually involves 4-6 people, a parlor LARP will often have 15-30, in my experience. I did once attend a game that had over 100 players two Saturdays a month, but that’s very outside the norm. (Hello to anybody who played the OWbN Vampire game at USF in about 2001!) Most of those people are players, and they each create a character with a name, a history, various skills and capabilities, and perhaps a costume. Costumes add so much. Some number of the people are storytellers (called STs or GMs or other things by different games), and they play various Non-Player Characters (NPCs) and adjudicate any uses of the rules.
There are competing schools of thought on just what The Point is of doing all this. It’s an awful lot of bother, isn’t it? I’ve always seen The Point as being part of a compelling, entertaining story. There are two elements to this that often oppose one another: the Game and the Narrative. (Tabletop roleplaying sometimes aims for a goal of Simulation, as well, wherein the game attempts to emulate the real world, but that is much more rarely a concern in LARP games.)
The Game is the rules. The stats. The character sheets. The powers and skills. In tabletop roleplaying, the dice. In parlor LARPs, the dice are usually replaced by rock-paper-scissors or something similar. People love to win games, but there’s no “YOU WIN! THE END!” in most roleplaying. Fortunately, you can win a fight or a stare-down or an infiltration attempt, and you can do that many, many times.
The Narrative is the story. The emotions and decisions of the characters, the story of what happens, all that. For some players and STs, the Narrative is just window-dressing to make the Game more entertaining, or vice versa. I tend to lean toward valuing the Narrative more, but I’ve been around the block enough times to know that Narrative without Game eventually makes for unpleasant roleplaying 95 percent of the time. It’s called writing a book, and it’s work, not fun. Fun work, if you’re lucky, but work.
Ultimately, The Point is to have an enjoyable time together with other people, some of whom may be your friends. That goal often gets obscured by various parties’ desires to Win a bit of Game or Tell a bit of Story, and part of an ST’s role is to encourage players to take a step back when that happens and assess what’s going on. Antagonism between characters can sometimes be taken personally by one or more of those characters’ players, leading to animosity between them. Some players might not act in good faith to work toward others having a good time, even to the point of harassing people. It is not all peaches and cream, as they say.
It is the responsibility of everyone involved to forfend these types of problems, especially the STs. However, it is important to keep in mind that it is never your responsibility to endure harassment (intentional or not) or other unpleasantness for the enjoyment of others. It may not seem befitting of a lady, but it is of paramount importance that you put your foot down with this sort of thing, up to and including depriving the other players of the privilege of your company. It does you no good to keep a stiff upper lip regarding poor behavior, and, further, this type of behavior can fester and spread if allowed to continue unchecked, eventually souring the experience of many other people.
That’s the most important background info you need. If you came into this knowing nothing about roleplaying, you likely feel overwhelmed and like you still don’t really understand. I’m sorry about that, but I assure you, you’re not as lost as you may feel. This is a topic that’s frustratingly hard to explain, not because it’s really all that complicated, but because there’s so little public awareness of it. Football (American or real) is far more complicated, but you probably feel like you’ve got a reasonable handle on it even if you don’t really know the rules. Roleplaying games in their modern form have only existed since the late ‘60s, so there’s just not the same level of cultural penetration.
Any ST worth their salt will know that you, specifically, have loads of talent, imagination, and passion to add to their game, and they will do everything in their power to assist you and make you feel welcome.
Further, women have been especially excluded from many roleplaying spaces, which might make you feel that you need to be entirely confident in every aspect of the pursuit before you even approach. Fortunately, parlor LARPs have historically seen much more gender parity. Any ST worth their salt will know that you, specifically, have loads of talent, imagination, and passion to add to their game, and they will do everything in their power to assist you and make you feel welcome. If they don’t, they clearly are not a person of good taste and refinement, and you should seek another parlor.
I want to take a second here to explain that all this—tabletop roleplaying, LARPing, boffers, cold nights in the woods in a state park, Saturdays spent with snooty nerds pretending to be vampires—this is… my life. A huge chunk of my life. And it’s even more deeply important to me than to most roleplayers, STs, or even probably most roleplaying writers/developers. My only friends in high school were roleplayers. I met my wife in a roleplaying game. I first explored my gender dysphoria via roleplaying games. Those last two points are very related. I spent two years running and writing a pretty successful parlor LARP during a time when I was failing at literally everything else in my life. I unironically call myself a High Priestess of Roleplaying because I believe so deeply in the psychological, social, and, yes, spiritual benefits of roleplaying. I am so deeply invested in this that I am completely the wrong person to be explaining it to people wholly unfamiliar with the concept. Yet I’m apparently the right person, because, as the wonderful Melissa Brinks points out, it seems like most of the people who talk about roleplaying to non-roleplayers are also non-roleplayers, and they don’t really get it.
The rest of this series will cover the basics of how to LARP. Rather than sticking to purely theoretical explanation, I’ll walk y’all through an example of what the experience is actually like for a player. This will take probably three or four more articles, but I really hope you’re interested enough to stick with me, because then I’m going to get into the good stuff. I’m going to write an ongoing dev blog about the LARP that I’m writing now, and y’all will be able to follow along as I muddle my way through making up a whole world and a game to go with it. If you’d like, you can even give me feedback and help shape the finished product. Stick around!
Read the rest of the Finding Your Role series here.
Annie Blitzen is Sidequest’s Resident LARP Expert, an inveterate player of tabletop roleplaying games, and a fair hand in video and board gaming. Sidequest writer since 2017.