My First LARP - Not What I Thought

Last weekend, I went to Orc Con in Los Angeles with my friends Cal and Jeff. Cal and I have been going to game cons in L.A. off and on for the past few years, usually to play board games but occasionally to try some role-playing, which as I noted a few months ago does not always work out.

Given what happened last time, we thought we'd just focus on board games this time. My friend Jeff isn't much of a board-gamer - he plays sometimes and is known to engage in some fierce Munchkin battles with his kids, but for the most part he stays away from the "heavier" strategy games. Cal is at the farther end of the spectrum in that he tends to prefer heavier games that have little or no luck components to them. I'm somewhere in-between, although I'm probably closer to the Cal end of the spectrum in terms of my preferences, even though I tend not to do too well at games, especially ones I haven't played before.

In any event, before we signed up for the Con, Cal mentioned that his friend Tom was going to be running a LARP and that we might want to check it out. Cal, Jeff, and I are not LARPers - Jeff and I have never done it before, and as I recall Cal has only done it once. However, at game days at Cal's house in the past, Tom has really talked up LARPing to us and mentioned his preference for it over traditional tabletop role-playing. I also learned from Cal that Tom runs the most popular LARP at GenCon every year, and since I know Tom personally I felt "safe" signing up for his LARP.

I really didn't know what to expect - everything I've read or seen about LARPs (which admittedly is not much) led me to believe that we'd be donning costumes and running around with plastic swords pretending to stab each other and using some kind of goofy codes or hand-signals to indicate what we were trying to do. It all sounded pretty silly to me, but I had to remind myself that trying to explain to novices why I enjoy tabletop role-playing probably instilled the same thoughts in them. So, I tried to approach Tom's LARP with as much as an open mind as I could muster.

As it turns out, it was pretty much like nothing I was expecting - I had a really great time and found that it was much easier to "get into character" in this fashion than it is when role-playing at the table, especially when a lot of my tabletop friends tend to playing by saying things like "my guy is going to move over here and try to hit the bad guy with his sword." In this case at Tom's LARP, everyone playing was "in character" and after a few minutes, it felt relatively comfortable. I'm not an actor by any stretch but a lot of the players, including my friend Cal, really got into it and created personalities that were very intriguing and identifiable. For the most part, I "acted" like myself with no accent or crazy personality quirks, but I did focus on my mission and make alliances with other characters and always referred to myself as my character name, etc.

The scenario was a modern-day bunker created to keep people safe from any potential disasters, which in this case was a deadly virus outbreak. The scenario's goal was to figure out how to keep the bunker's systems running and determine how best to provide food, water, and fresh air for all of the people in the bunker for as long as we'd need to stay in there. It required cooperation and matching skill-sets among characters that were mainly divided into five  broad groups: security, medical personnel, engineers, computer specialists, and "rich people with no skills" who had bought their way into the bunker.

The mechanics were elegantly simple - each character was given a score that ranged from (I think) 2 to 5 in three areas: Fighting, Talking, and "Figuring." The Talking score was used to try to influence other people and Figuring was used to solve puzzles. Whenever you wanted to try one of those three things, you told one of the GMs (Tom or one of his two friends, who had helped him create the scenario), and then you'd pull a card from a deck that included numbers from Ace (1) to 7, with heavier weighting of the lower numbers. I only saw this in action a couple of times when Cal (as chief of security) used his Fighting ability against a few people. I never witnessed anyone using their Talking or Figuring abilities, and for myself, I actually never used any of the three abilities during the game, as it didn't come up as necessary for my character's goals, but I was still able to figure things out on my own.

Each character also had skills in a mixture of Medical (Hearts), Engineering (Spades), "Manual Labor" (there was a different name for it; Clubs) and I think Technical/Computer stuff (Diamonds). My character was an emergency room surgeon so I mainly had Medical cards but I also had a few Engineering and Manual Labor cards. The numbers on the cards didn't matter in the game - you just had an envelope with a set of cards in them, and those cards were used to help "turn on" the various systems of the Bunker such as the Hydroponics Bay, the Security System, the Air Decontamination System, etc. Our main goal was to work with all 18 players to figure out which systems took priority and which ones needed to be turned on first, and then find the appropriate characters with the right skills to turn them on, and then convince those players to use their skill cards to help turn them on. Once you used a card, it was gone - you didn't get it back. Each system was represented by a series of pictures laid flat on tables around the outside walls of the room we were in, and each picture had the number of symbols of the cards it would take to turn that system on - the Medical Lab might have Four Hearts, Three Spades, Four Clubs, and Two Diamonds on it, for example so you'd have to work with the other players to get that many of each card put above that system to show that you were trying to turn it on, and then you'd tell the GM that you'd done so and they would tell you how it worked.

Each player also had a "player number" and a series of small yellow stickers, so any time he or she used a card to help start a system, he or she would also place a yellow sticker on the system and write the player number on the sticker, so that a person would know that Player 6 was trying to work on setting up the Communications System, for example.

Things got interesting for a variety of reasons. Without getting into specifics in case Tom ever runs this particular scenario again, my character was actually not really interested in getting the medical systems up and running and instead was more interested in hacking into the computer systems to find some information that would help him in an investigation. This was all background information that was given to me when Tom assigned me my character. But, other people expected me to use my "Heart" cards to help get the Medical Systems up and running so I had to be careful to make it look like I was helping. Also, the systems that I wanted to turn on were things that I didn't have the capabilities of turning on by myself, so I had to find other players with those skills and try to convince them why they should help me to turn something on that most likely didn't really have much to do with keeping us healthy and alive. All of the other players had similar things written into their backgrounds - for whatever reason, there were certain systems that each character really wanted to turn on, and they might not always be the ones that seemed obvious for their character career.

Also, there were, as you've probably guessed, saboteurs - people who could play cards to make it look like they were trying to help turn systems on but were actually sabotaging those systems. Tom had a way of how players could "mark" their cards when they did so, so that the GM would know it had been sabotaged without the other players getting wind of it.

The entire game was really about getting into character and then using your background knowledge to try to work with the other characters to create alliances and accomplish your goals - every character had a list of goals he or she should try to accomplish by the end of the game. There was actually really almost no combat at all until about the last 30 minutes (we played for three hours) and that mainly came down to people figuring out there there were too many people in the bunker for the amount of supplies, so some people were going to have to go. Things fell apart very quickly after that (in game), as you can probably imagine.

Tom and his colleagues had also spent a ton of time on the background materials and props for the game. There were "rope lights" (I'm not sure what the real name is - it's like a long, thin, clear plastic tube with green lights inside it) that were taped across the bottom of the floor to outline the room around where the tables were set up, and at a certain point the "power went out" and so we were left in a relatively dark room with only the faded green lights from the floor to light our way - it definitely added to the atmosphere of the scenario. There were also props on the table such as handouts and maps, and there were two "safes" that had codes that we had to figure out how to open (one safe had weapons, the other had documents that were important toward figuring out certain things), and they even had some costume props like lab coats, stethoscopes, camouflage shirts for the security guards, etc. These were mainly used to help the characters recognize someone else immediately - instead of having to say "where are the doctors at?" you could just look around the room and based on the costume props, figure it out pretty easily.

At the end, after we finished the game, Tom gave us all the opportunity to "tell our story" about why we did what we did so that we'd all know what each other player was trying to accomplish. This was really fun, as some of it a few of us had figured out during the course of the game, but there were a lot of characters who just weren't who they said they were or whose motives were completely different than what they had alluded to during the game.

I had a ton of fun playing through this, and I asked Tom if it was representative of all LARPs or if his was different. I can say that, if given the opportunity, I'd definitely play in one of Tom's LARPs again (but probably only if I was with my friends like Cal and Jeff), but I'm not sure if I'm ready to sign up for a LARP run by someone that I don't know. Like any kind of role-playing experience, a lot of the fun of the game is going to come from how good the GM is. Having participated in Tom's, I know that he runs a quality game, but I can see how difficult and time-consuming it would be to run one properly. After the game, a bunch of us headed to the hotel bar with Tom to chat about it and I heard some horror stories about poorly run LARPs that gives me pause.

As always, I looked at this opportunity as a chance to gain inspiration for my tabletop role-playing, and from that standpoint I gained a lot. I have a much better appreciation for "being in character" when playing now than I did before, and I also got some great ideas for using puzzles in-game with simple resolution mechanics. Also, Tom is a screen-writer by trade and so his character backgrounds were really rich and fun, and that helped expand my imagination with ideas for creating my own characters, both for myself as a player but also for when we run one-shot/finite games where I assign characters to people.

As always, I'd love to hear thoughts from my readers who have participated in a LARP before and what your experiences were like.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Coffee (black)
Listening: "Heartbreakers (DJ Edit)" by Crazy P


  1. The only larping I have done was as a teenager. My home town has some wooded areas around it with some interesting terrain features for a good environment for running around and pretending to be fantastic warriors.

    One of my friends had been to one of the main organised larp events a few times and he ran the games based on his memories of those events; it worked quite well for a home-made system, and looking back it was quite an impressive feat of organisation for a bunch of fifteen year olds!

    I think there was some sort of skill system but I don't recall how that worked. Spells were pieces of paper that the magician held, and as spells were cast, the paper was torn or screwed up and given to the GM, so magic was a limited resource.

    Weapons were home made; they were sticks or plastic pipes, wrapped in foam lagging, then covered in gaffer tape. While they'd never be mistaken for a real weapon-- like some of the professional stuff you get these days -- they were also quite impressive.

    Combat involved striking your opponent and then calling out "single" or "double" or even "triple" depending on the strength of the weapon and the character class.

    We'd take turns playing as heroes or monsters. The GM would run us through a short adventure - most times a simple get from A to B, or to retrieve something from location C, although to his credit there were often branching paths and even clue gathering segments, so it was never linear -- then we'd swap sides and he'd run a different adventure for the former monsters.

    We didn't do it a lot, as it took some organisation and was dependent on good light and weather, but I have fond memories of it. I think what I liked most about it was that it combined gaming with wandering about in the woods, two of my favourite activities!

    1. That does sound like a lot of fun, and actually matches a bit closer to my more "traditional" thoughts on what a LARP would be like.

      Honestly I feel like the one I participated in was sort of just a more "advanced" version of a standard "How to Host Murder Mystery Party," but I mean that in a good way. It was more about talking and interacting than it was about taking out frustrations by pretend-fighting people, which is what I was afraid was going to happen.

      Speaking of your memories of wandering about in the woods, I have very fond memories of playing "capture the flag" out in the woods as a kid until late one night with almost no moon out, I ran at full-speed right into a rusty barbed-wire fence and flipped head-over-heels, falling onto my back. I spent the next day or two worrying that I was going to need a tetanus shot due to all the scratches I got, but everything turned out okay.

    2. Ouch!

      I took part in a murder mystery once in university. It was quite fun and there was a surprising amount of role-playing -- although things got a bit strange at one point -- but for some reason I've never tried it again.


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