LARPing can transform a hotel conference room into a mysterious island populated by mythical monsters if you just give in to the mass hysteria.
In my earlier column on Clockwork Alchemy, the Steampunk con held annually at the San Jose DoubleTree Hotel, I mention LARPing, which I describe as “a combination of Dungeons & Dragons and community theater.” LARP is an acronym for live-action role playing, and it really is a phenomenon unto itself that goes beyond steampunk or even sci-fi and fantasy.
Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Fantasy Freaks & Gaming Geeks, explains that LARPing “can take place in any kind of world or genre—science fiction, the Wild West, roaring ’20s, some Lord of the Rings-like heroic setting, etc.” “LARPs allow people to do things they can’t do in real life,” Gilsdorf adds, “to immerse themselves in a story where they have agency and control.”
According to Suleiman Russell, my LARP’s game master (a combination of stage director, cruise director and referee), the urge to LARP takes hold when tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons are no longer immersive enough.
“Most fairly serious table-top gamers will do something crazy like show up to the game dressed up as their favorite character,” Russell explains. “At some point, someone says, ‘Hey, let’s just do that and skip all of the dice-rolling stuff.’”
The LARP that I did at Clockwork Alchemy involved about a dozen people. While all the cool steampunks were upstairs tripping the light fantastic at the Victorian Ball, my fellow LARPers and I spent two hours acting out a Steampunk version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in one of the Doubletree’s larger conference rooms. Heavy on theatricality, this LARP is what Gilsdorf would classify as “salon or theater-style,” where “the main focus is improvisational interaction between characters.” In our case, this turn toward improv was out of necessity.
“The insurance doesn’t cover actual physical contact,” our production’s version of Prospero explained at a point during our LARP when the drama got a little too heated.
Another common kind of LARP is called the boffer LARP, where players run around the woods and beat the crap out of each other with foam rubber swords like in the comedy movie Knights of Badassdom, starring Peter Dinklage and currently on Netflix.
Some of these more intensive LARPs draw hundreds of participants and are held in rented-out public campgrounds over the course of long weekends. Every year, the Lorien Trust, which offers you a “walk amongst Goblins, Elves and Dwarves where magic is real,” has as many as 4,000 armored LARPers invading an English country estate that looks like something out of Downton Abbey.
The steampunk Shakespeare I did at Clockwork Alchemy turned out to be plenty immersive though, even without being able to smack my fellow LARPers with a plastic war hammer. There was a point where the mass hysteria had set in and everyone started to believe they were trapped on a mysterious island with crab monsters and ancient magic.
As the LARP’s resident Caliban, I was turned into a tentacled creature, got killed and then resurrected by Millissa Russell, the non-player character tasked with keeping things moving. After all of that, plus exploding pyramids and erupting volcanoes, it was pretty easy to get swept away by the tempest.
Every month in “Shattering Conventions,” author Bob Calhoun crashes a new tradeshow, convention or conference looking for a way to fit in—even when he doesn't always belong. Calhoun is the author of "Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor." You can follow him on Twitter at @bob_calhoun.