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Title: Well-organized make-believe

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, Wednesday September 10th, 2008 - visit author Lizzie Stark's website at elizabethrstark.com

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Posted on Wed, Sep. 10, 2008

Well-organized make-believe
Thousands of LARPers - live action role players - and their imaginations run wild in games.

By Lizzie Stark

For The Inquirer
On most days, chaplain Mark Ford works for the forces of good, counseling drug and alcohol addicts at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, a nonprofit Christian social-service organization.

But late on a Friday this summer, Ford became "Pope Frig'emall," a chaos-worshipping cartoon priest bent on bringing evil incarnate to his world. Ford wore a pointed cardboard hat bearing three bombs with sizzling fuses, and sat at a long table with a succubus, a celestial otter, and a sentient computer program named Zero.

Ford is a live action role player, or LARPer, one of thousands across the country who LARP at conventions each year. In July, Ford attended DEXCON, an annual gaming convention run by Double Exposure Inc. in New Jersey, where he played in the Avatar System, one of more than 20 LARPs put on at the convention.

A LARP is like a cross between a Civil War reenactment and the tabletop game Dungeons and Dragons - picture an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer performed by costumed amateurs without a script. LARPers assume a character in each LARP they play and dress up in costumes ranging from the elaborate - like the custom head-plate and shaved eyebrows of Robert Nolan, 29 - to simple street clothes. LARPs can take place almost anywhere - in hotel rooms or bars or simply within the players' imaginations.

Joseph Gates, 26, a LARPer from Philadelphia, said, "It's a lot like improv, so you're given a set story. Even though the acts and the scenes are generally written, the players themselves improv and they provide the script for the story." Gates wore an elaborate red and blue robe as he prepared to play an investigative young samurai in a Legend of the Five Rings LARP, which is set in a feudal Japan-type setting.

Most LARPs are based on a particular genre, which sets the rules of the world. In high-fantasy LARPs, players might choose to play a sorcerer, barbarian or scholar, while in a Wild West game players might become a gunslinger, prostitute or cardsharp.

Some games, generally high-fantasy, include actual swordplay with "boffers," pieces of pipe covered with foam for safety and painted to look real. When two people challenge each other to a duel, their characters strike each other with boffers.

Game masters, also called GMs, guide players through the plot and adapt it according to players' actions. In Deadlands, for example, a gothic Wild West game played at DEXCON, the GMs told players about a new judge coming to town who intended to hang all the town's prisoners. One player derailed this plot by shooting the judge, and the game masters scrambled to adapt.

A "one-shot" is a LARP that happens only once, while "campaign" or "continuing" LARPs may last for several sessions or many years.

There is no one founder of LARP and no single conglomerate of LARPing organizations. The oldest recorded LARP, a Maryland game set in a Lord of the Rings-style world called Dagorhir, has been running since 1977.

The Avatar System is a 13-year-old LARP that allows players to create any possible character - from sentient trees to blue-raspberry Slurpees - as well as the plot inside the Nexus, the fictional world where the Avatar System takes place.

A lot can happen in more than a decade, but recently, a player-created plot literally exploded. Over several years of LARP events, four villainous characters had been smuggling into the Nexus ghostrock - a substance from the Deadlands Wild West game that looks like coal but is made of damned souls. Then at a LARP convention in January, these characters set off a series of explosions, causing many characters to go temporarily insane from exposure to the ghostrock dust.

As often as there is tragedy, there is a lighter side to the game. Avonelle Wing, 30, a senior GM for the Avatar System, fondly recalled a midnight scene she led where vampire sheep made an inexplicable appearance and ended up sinking their fangs into trees.

Although LARPs are games, there is no winning or losing, because character development creates most of the game's action. A character's success or failure can inspire growth, both in and outside of the game.

Jason Michaeli, 24, a LARPer and GM from Old Bridge, N.J., who has been gaming for 10 years, said the situations in some LARPs mirrored real-life problems and let gamers feel as if they were "accomplishing something, even though it's in a completely fake world."

For longtime gamers like Ford, who has been LARPing for 10 years, the game is a vacation. "It's a really good escape in a lot of ways," he said.

In Ford's real life as a chaplain, he works with drug and alcohol addicts, many of whom are psychologically troubled, he said. Yet in the Avatar System, his character is insane after losing his family in an explosion.

Ford said playing Frig'emall had made him better at counseling addicts on the job. "It works both ways," he said. "In dealing with people who have genuine insanities, I see certain behavior patterns, and it helps me play Frig'emall better." Role-playing a disturbed character also gives him empathy. "It helps me realize how someone would deal," he said.

But in a world where vampire sheep rule the streets and grown men gambol in custom-made metal head-plates, not everyone feels at home.

In a hallway late one night at the convention, a brave band of 15 Avatar characters marched to the end of a passageway of white marble columns, and up to the raised dais where an enigmatic idiot savant sat atop a golden throne. As she transformed her mechanical arm into a giant gun, a few pedestrians stumbled upon the scene.

"Normal people!" someone shouted, and soon everyone was yelling, "Normal people, let 'em through!"

For a moment, the illusion slipped, and the setting returned to its regular status as the glass-encased hallway connecting the East Brunswick Hilton's parking garage and lobby. The cyborg on the dais was just GM Kate Beaman-Martinez, 26, the throne two chairs taken from the convention hall.

The characters parted so the two men could pass through.

With the "norms" safely out of sight, someone yelled, "Game on!", and the characters bunched in front of the throne, and vanished again into their imaginations.
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