Away from the Dinner Table #3: LARP Details
A word about reenacting and LARPing: They are not the same. Reenacting is an attempt to recreate an actual era in history. Authenticity is important in reenacting, since if you do something not in keeping with the era you're trying to portray, (wearing sneakers with your toga, for example) you're not doing a very good job. LARPing is not, and shouldn't be, held to the same standards of authenticity for the simple reason that LARPing is trying to create a fantasy atmosphere, not a historical one.
I got the idea for this column from a Revolutionary War re-enactor named Todd Post. If you're interested in reading the inspiration for this article, head over to http://www.revwarprogressive.org/ and read the article entitled "Ten Inexpensive Ways to Improve Your Impression." (A re-enactor's "impression" is roughly equivalent to a LARPer's character.) You might even discover a whole new hobby. (If you do, don't blame me, I'm just the messenger.)
A word about reenacting and LARPing: They are not the same. Reenacting is an attempt to recreate an actual era in history. Authenticity is important in reenacting, since if you do something not in keeping with the era you're trying to portray, (wearing sneakers with your toga, for example) you're not doing a very good job. LARPing is not, and shouldn't be, held to the same standards of authenticity for the simple reason that LARPing is trying to create a fantasy atmosphere, not a historical one. There's really no such thing as an authentic fireball spell ("But a real wizard would have... "). But at the same time, a fantasy LARP is trying to create a certain atmosphere, and there are things just as out-of-place in that atmosphere as a cell phone at the Battle of Gettysburg. What follows is a list of ideas on how to help maintain the fantasy atmosphere at your LARP. I've tried to keep these suggestions generic, as LARP worlds are not all the same. (If your world is full of Styrofoam coolers, more power to you-just don't expect me to stay for more than a day).
Shave! If you're an elf, that is. Gamers do disagree on how tall elves should be (Tolkein vs D&D-style) but one thing they tend to agree on is elves do not have facial hair. So if you play an elf, shave for the event. Hand in hand with this goes the extra cosmetic stuff, like ear tips to round out your elfish impression. If you're playing a different race, say a dwarf or a half-orc, well, you should represent those as well. Grow a beard or wear a fake one if you're a dwarf. Wear green makeup if you're a half-orc. If you aren't willing to make yourself look like a non-human race, well, for goodness sakes, play a human. It's easy!
Play to your strengths! If you are very slight of build, try playing an elf. If you are solid and stocky, and not too tall, try a dwarf. By the same token, a tall skinny person should probably not play a dwarf. Appearances aside, if you're good at sneaking, try a rogue character. If you're strong and agile, try a warrior. If you're good at memorizing stuff, try a spell-caster. If you're a klutz, you probably shouldn't play a warrior. It wouldn't be safe for you or for your mates, and your character probably won't live very long.
Hide the mundane! Lots of folks like to bring food to events. That's great! But if you bring that food in a McDonald's bag, well, it kinda wrecks the illusion. If you must bring modern food (hard to avoid), please keep the containers out of sight when you're not using them. Cover them with a cloth or blanket. Put them in a wooden box. Anything, but don't leave that plastic two-liter bottle out where everyone can see it.
Get good garb! Or learn some rudimentary sewing skills. Second-hand sewing machines aren't all that expensive and basic stitches are far easier than you might think. Making a tunic is as easy as pie, and there are all kinds of patterns available for period and fantasy clothing. Talk to your fellow LARPers to find out how to make stuff. As soon as you are able, get rid of those modern stand-ins. Oh, and try to use garb that makes sense for your character. A fine, embroidered doublet and hose may look cool as all get out, but makes no sense for a peasant character. Likewise, shabby-looking tunics are great for peasants but are all wrong for wealthier characters. Use your common sense.
See a cobbler! Footwear is often the last thing people think about when developing their costume. Fair enough, as it's not exactly easy to find fantasy-friendly footwear, and cobbling is not as easy to get into as sewing; it requires expensive and esoteric equipment. If you want to learn how, good for you! But if you don't, get yourself a pair of Minnetonka Moccasins. No, they aren't perfect, but they're a definite improvement over the high tops you may have worn at your first event. They're also inexpensive and, if taken care of, will last you a long time. Of course, now that Renaissance Festivals are in practically every state in the Union, cool-looking, comfortable, passable footwear is within more LARPers' reach. Check out the cobblers' booths at your local renfaire. For those willing to drop more dimes, there are sources on the web which offer some nifty-looking custom boots.
Put those @%^ swords away! There's not much that's sillier than somebody standing around the campfire, sword in hand, looking for the entire world like he's ready to kick ass and take names. Oh, yes there is-a whole group of such people. If I saw such a group, I'd worry they were going to start killing each other and run for the constable. Or I might run away, depending on how tough the other fellow looks. It's not hard to make a sheath for your boffer. The cardboard center of a duct tape roll works nicely. Hang it from your belt with some twine or some rawhide. Or make one out of leather. It's not that hard.
Leave the unnecessary anachronisms at home! Don't bring your cell-phones, pagers, palm pilots, Game Boy, etc. to the field. They're probably gonna get broken anyway. And if you absolutely positively have to be reachable, set your tech jobbie to vibrate, like polite theatergoers do. And when it goes off, answer it somewhere away from others, preferably the parking lot.
Put out that cigarette! Cigarettes have no place in a fantasy setting. I've never read a medieval fantasy novel in which a character smokes anything resembling a cigarette. If you must smoke in character, get yourself a pipe. They're nifty, and they appear in many fantasy novels, notably Lord of the Rings and the Wheel of Time series. You can get a fantasy-looking pipe at a specialty tobacconist shop or from the souvenir shops at many historical sites. You can also order them from living history suppliers. Type the word "sutler" into your favorite search engine and see what you find.
Lose the glasses! Remember the old adage, "Never hit a guy with glasses?" There's a reason for it: if you take a hit to the face (illegal in almost all LARPs, but it does accidentally happen) your glasses will, at worst, cause a serious injury. At best, they'll go flying and you'll have to call a time-out to find them before somebody steps on them. If you can get contact lenses, please do so, and wear them to events. If for whatever reason you are unable to wear contacts, well, it's probably more dangerous to stumble around the field with blurred vision, so take precautions. Wear a strap to keep your glasses from flying when you take a headshot. Better yet, wear a helmet to protect them (and your head). Aside from the safety issue, glasses just don't look right in a fantasy setting. You never hear about Nanoc the Barbarian wiping the blood off of his spectacles, do you? Whatever you do, do not wear nonprescription sunglasses. That's just silly, and they're probably going to get broken anyway.
Don't break character! Or at least do your best not to. Nobody wants to hear about your new DVD player on the LARP field. They want to hear about the last pack of goblins you killed. Also, develop your character's mannerisms, and act like your character when on the field. Say things like Forsooth and Oddsbodkins. Read Shakespeare and try to imitate that manner of speaking. If you can do it well, speak with an appropriate accent. If you can't do it well, please don't do it at all. Nothing's more cheesy than a bad accent. The same applied to nonverbal mannerisms. Maybe your character tends to absent-mindedly scratch his head with an arrow. Maybe she fingers a spell packet when feeling threatened. It doesn't matter what your character is like, but stay in character when on the field.
Now, this column has been very fantasy-centric. That's because most ongoing LARPs are either fantasy ones or World of Darkness(tm) ones, and I happen to like fantasy better. The list of suggestions above apply mostly to fantasy LARPs, but the principles apply to them all. Naturally, a 1920's LARP would have people smoking and wearing glasses. But at the same time, it wouldn't have people wearing Oakley sunglasses, either. They key is to think about the setting when creating your costume and character, and don't include stuff that is jarringly out-of-context. Your fellow LARPers and GMs will thank you for your effort.