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The World According To LARP
by Sarah Richardson

Writer and Reporter Sarah Richardson speaks to Mac from Spearhead Lrp, then gives us a view of the larp hobby from a non-player's perspective...

From Tolkien to "Time in!"
When the 'Lord Of The Rings' saga finally arrived on our screens, it was keenly anticipated. For thousands of people around the world, however, reading books and watching films will never be enough; they prefer to take part in their own Tolkien-inspired adventures.

In 1951, JRR Tolkien wrote of his then-unpublished 'Lord Of The Rings' trilogy: "The cycles should… leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama". It is quite probable, then, that he would have given his blessing to the thousands of "other minds and hands" worldwide who, inspired by Tolkien's vision, regularly engage in the pastime of Larp, or live-action role-playing.

Meeting up at weekends in individual groups known as 'systems', Larpists take on the roles of fictional characters - often Tolkienesque wizards, goblins and trolls - and engage in picaresque adventures in which anything can happen. Mac, a long-time Larpist, explains the appeal of the pursuit. "You become totally immersed in this other world. There's nothing else I've ever done that even comes close in terms of
de-stressing. It's like going on a holiday - I come away from it with a completely fresh mind."

But how does the whole thing work? Mac says: "The basic idea is similar to improvising a play, but always taking into account the background and motivations of your particular character." He is, however, at pains to point out that a lot depends on the quality of the particular system to which a player belongs. "In some systems, people don't really care about their character; they just run around finding ways to become more and more powerful and blowing things up - we call it 'power-gaming'." By contrast, he says, a good system places every adventure within a wealth of contextual detail which adds an extra dimension to the experience. Such background detail is dreamed up by the writer who runs the system, as are the challenges faced by players during the series of 'encounters' they will undertake in the course of a day.

In 'Spearhead', the particular system of which Mac is a part, each player gets to draw up their own character background, and is also permitted to play more than one character. "Most people play their first character based a bit on how they see themselves, or how they'd like to see themselves. So my first character, Gabor, has a military background and does all the things I like to do, like taking control, and running around hitting stuff with swords! My second character is called Morg, and in terms of role-playing, he's a better character for me, because he's got more specific traits and is the opposite to what I'm like in real life. He's not interested in fighting; he's an archer, but he's not very good at that, plus he stutters, and he's got these big buck teeth."

Costume and props are an important aspect of creating the right mood, but perhaps more significant is the idea of characters' actions being consistent with their background description. "If someone is going around on a quest for power, you have to ask: why does the character want all that power?" asks Mac. "Is it because they're a megalomaniac? And if so, what in their background has made them like that?" Based on the character background they have written, then, players should be able to justify why their character has acted in a certain way during their encounters. The writer/organiser follows the party of players around all day, and, at the end of the day, those who have succeeded in playing their parts believably will win extra 'experience points' which afford them advantages in future adventures.

The challenges faced by players are set up by the team of selfless individuals who volunteer to play 'monsters' for the day. Mac says: "The whole thing should be seamless for players - they'll go from encounter to encounter, each of which will have been set up by the monsters, so you'll have three monsters taking part in the first encounter while the other three are setting up the second. Players will hopefully never see the monsters carrying their huge bags of kit around, or being out of character; they will simply see a series of events happening and walk into different encounters as they're live, as opposed to, say, a monster having his mask off and eating some crisps."

Given such attention to detail, and the fact that prodigious numbers of people are happy to suspend their disbelief while watching the 'Lord of the Rings' films, is it so remarkable that many also derive huge enjoyment from playing an active part in similarly fantastical adventures? After all, these characters are built up over time and have much thought and physical energy invested in them. Which brings us to the sensitive subject of what happens when a Larp character dies in an encounter. Under 'Spearhead' rules, such a death means that the player in question must devise a new role - including costume and background - from scratch, as well as establishing a whole new set of allegiances. This must be irritating, if not distressing, for the player. "I'd hate for Gabor to die," admits Mac, wistfully reeling off a list of his character's lofty achievements, which would all count for nothing in the event of his mid-adventure demise. But in a make-believe world, surely a character such as Gabor could be resurrected, or, at the very least, Mac could make his new character a member of Gabor's family with a striking physical resemblance, thereby saving himself the hassle of coming up with an elaborate new costume? No, says Mac - such a shortcut would be missing the point in a big way. "It'd be silly," he insists. He seems to be getting fed up of all the questions, and perhaps it's no wonder. After all, in the world of the larpist, actions speak louder than words.

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