LARP, or Living History?
An experienced historical re-enactor (or 'Living History' as it is more fashionably known these days), I attended a LARP event earlier this year to get a taste of something a little more latex-oriented. Here are my thoughts on how LARP and Living History compare.
Earlier this year I spent a weekend as a member of the Eboracum City Guard, a unit affiliated to the Jhereg faction in the fantasy world of 'Curious Pastimes'. This was my first such event, although I did do a bit of LARP (Live Action Roleplay) monstering about 15 years ago when I was living in Reading.
I am also a somewhat experienced historical battle re-enactor having spent ten years as an active member of Regia Angolorum. And as readers of this forum are no doubt aware, I am a fairly avid practitioner of pen'n'paper RPG.
I think I will comment on my experiences with CP-LARP with reference to these other roleplaying mediums to give some feel for how they compare. Of course, Curious Pastimes are not the only LARP outfit around, any more than Regia Angolorum are the only game in town as far as historical re-enactment (or 'Living History') is concerned, so it should be borne in mind that my comments are specific to these organisations and not necessarily an exhaustive assessment of all forms of LARP or HR/Living History. Also I cannot claim to be an authority on CP-LARP having only attended a single event!
Similar to most pen'n'paper RPG, LARP is primarily focussed on providing a medium of entertainment for its participants. It is not totally freeform, there is a framework of rules and a single world providing a shared frame of reference, but there is a huge range of flexibility and choice for its participants. The CP staff and rulemakers would, one suspects, happily entertain rules additions, creation of new races and equipment and so on, based on the majority wishes of those participating. Popularity is the name of the game here. Since fantasy roleplayers in general have a loosely agreed-on collective culture that informs their ideas of right and wrong in the 'typical fantasy setting' it is not hard to cater to the wishes of the majority and gain agreement from most players regarding most things.
Living History certainly can be entertaining to practise, but its primary role is education and spectacle, for its participants and for members of the public. The overriding principle of Living History (if correctly practised) is authenticity. There are varying degrees to which authenticity may be enforced in practise and if standards are set too high this risks alienating and losing members. But at least in principle, the good Living Historian aims to become 'more authentic'. This is a fundamental difference from LARP. Not all Living Historians take authenticity to the nth degree, they will find a level that they personally are comfortable with and are able to maintain whilst still having fun doing it, but there will always be someone around more dedicated than them, with more authentic kit than them, reminding them that they could 'do better'. (NB this is not criticism, merely observation).
To start doing Regia-style living history (which is set in the dark ages/early medieval period) your bare minimum would be a peasant tunic and a shortspear. You can't start using a sword right away in Regia – peasants couldn't afford swords back then, in much the same way that a typical man-in-the-street these days can't afford to buy their own helicopter. Ideally you'd want a shield as well if you want to survive beyond the first three seconds of battle, but you can make do without. Oh, and no hand-made authentic shoes? You go on barefoot then of course. As you only have a tunic you are bare-legged also.
So a cheap tunic (made of wool, linen or muslin please and no dark blues or purples if you are a peasant and definitely no black!) and shortspear (metal-pointed, with a ball-bearing welded to the tip so you don't actually kill someone with it) will set you back around Â£30 I am guessing.
Membership fees are around Â£15 p.a. and if you are less well-off then Regia will sometimes pay your travel/fuel costs. Occasionally you get to do paid work / film work and this actually earns you money. Don't give up the day job, though.
Now, as you progress in your career as a Regia bod or bodette, you will probably gradually acquire better and better equipment, such as better soft kit like tunic, breeches, hose, undertunic, braiding and embroidery, a shield, sword, helmet, gambeson (a sort of padded jacket that is worn under armour), and your pride and joy, your mailshirt (which you will painstakingly make yourself with two pairs of pliers, around 30,000 steel links, and many hours of labour as your 'rite of passage' into the nobility). If you are really psychotic you will make a truly authentic riveted mailshirt. No, I haven't and I never will:
CP-LARP has much less stringent requirements for kit, although there are certain 'physical representation' requirements you must meet particularly if you are a non-human. This may involve fangs, shoulder padding and platform boots (ogres), pointy ears (elves), lots of fur and great big clawed gloves (beastman), or black face paint and a silver wig (drow). If you just want to be a human then it's easy-peasy. Guess what I chose to be! Colours – whatever you fancy. Materials – ditto. Have fun making you costume and let your imagination run wild. Quite a contrast to Living History kit philosophy. Now if you join a 'company' they may expect some kind of conformity with their own style (you might have to wear a tabard or use a certain shield design) but in general you don't need to worry too much about kit. I saw one chap who basically wore a linen shirt and black jeans. And it's a rare LARPer who will go to the trouble of making or buying authentic shoes. Ah, and LARPers love black. Black leather this, black leather that, all over the place. Having said this some people obviously take great pains with their costumes. They may not represent anything even vaguely historical but they do look good!
LARP weapons – hmmm, spears appear to be a no-no although I saw a few pole-arms. I gather these are only ever used as overhand walloping weapons. Despite their weapons being clad in foam rubber LARPers don't like thrusting as an attack style, it seems. More on this later. Anyhow, the way it works is you buy skills for your character like weapon proficiencies and this determines what weapon you can use. I think a few special weapons require you to pass a safety test (I overheard) but otherwise you are simply limited by what you can purchase proficiency-wise, plus whatever you can buy in real-terms. Now LARP weapons may be all rubbery but they ain't cheap. Cost for a low-end LARP sword seems to be about Â£60 but you can go much higher. By comparison metal swords used by Regia warriors usually start from Â£150. At first glance re-enactment weapons seem more expensive but LARP weapons wear out much more rapidly and require more periodic maintenance (although you don't have to worry about them rusting). In the long term, it seems you will end up spending more on your LARP weaponry than your re-enactment weapons which will, if properly cared for, last a great deal longer.
CP-LARP appears to charge per event for you to attend. I paid Â£50 to participate in the Wigan event. This goes towards the hire of the location plus a small army of security staff and game referees who go about organising and managing the event. Remember that the event is for the enjoyment of the participants; whereas a Regia living history event is usually a show put on for the public, and often paid for by a local council or someone like English Heritage. In both cases you have to provide your own camping facilities and food.
Actually the security weren't all that good. I arrived late on Friday night and found the gate to the site (a scouting estate) locked and no one in attendance. So ignoring the 'Guard Dogs On Patrol' sign I climbed over a wall, marched through a bit of swamp and eventually located the campsite having walked through the car park unchallenged. Though one of the security people later claimed he'd spotted me on camera. A likely story, he was probably tucking into a bag of donuts at the time. Anyhow they opened the gate for me and let me drive my carriage inside.
In Regia-style living history (which does include 'civilian' activities as well) the only game mechanics, really, are combat-related, whereas in LARP you have combat, magic, and also plot development going on.
Regia-style combat emphasises the personal skill of the participant, and as such is not a good vehicle for 'heroic' roleplay – unless you really are a warrior of epic proportions in real life, in which case why are you messing about with re-enactments?
Regia fighters can be quite skilled although there are some important points of style that would work against them in a real fight. Firstly, because metal weapons are employed, there are illegal target areas. For instance, no headshots are permitted. In real life, this would be one of your primary target zones, especially if your opponent knows how to use their shield properly. This then hampers the Regia warrior in two ways; they are programmed not to hit people in the head, and they are also not programmed to defend against shots to the head.
In Regia combat, if you are unarmoured, you have one hit point. That's it. Doesn't matter how long you've been doing it for. You have to rely on your own skill to keep yourself alive. Quite simply, don't get hit. A concession is made to those who wear armour – such warriors gain additional hit points, up to three for heavily armoured individuals. Also, note that a hit to the arm or leg will put you out of the fight as surely as a hit to the torso, although you are not obliged to fall over and play dead if you take a limb hit – you are merely obliged to withdraw from the battle line and sit somewhere nursing your wound.
Is such a basic combat mechanic realistic? Well, it may be argued that if you take a sword thrust that splits your bicep open like a ripe tomato you don't just grit your teeth, ignore it and carry on fighting. No, you're not dead (yet – wait for the infection to get to you). But you are likely to be hors de combat, or at least next-to-useless in a medieval-style close-quarters melee. Blood loss will soon wear you down if you don't pull out of the fight and get it patched up. Though there are counter-arguments that cite instances of people performing incredible feats of stoicism and bravery under the influence of adrenaline...
Anyhow, this combat system doesn't make for much D&D-style heroism – no matter how experienced you are, if you find yourself up against half a dozen newbies armed with spears and only one training session under their belt you are probably dead meat. But remember – the aim of Regia is to put on a realistic show for the public. It's not about you, it's about them out there that are watching and they don't give two figs for your personal desire to be a hero, they want to see a bloody massacre.
One aspect of Regia combat that is rather unrealistic is that in most cases a weapon only needs to touch you in order to score a hit. This is to avoid arguments occurring on the battlefield in the middle of a public show, and also to promote safe usage of potentially dangerous metal weapons.
Now despite the 'entertain-the-public' mission statement Regia fighters *are* competitive and do complain about what is fair and unfair in a combat. Here's an example of where this 'touch-hit' mechanic falls down. Let's suppose an armoured knight with sword and shield is facing off against a spearman. Now if the spearman can extend his spear inside the reach of the armoured knight, going past the shield, and then draw it backwards, angling it in a little so that the edge of the spearpoint glances along his enemy's mail-clad ribs, then the spearman can claim this as a hit. If the knight were unarmoured, this might be more convincing, since the edges of spearpoints were razor-sharp and could open up a lung by this method, but someone wearing 40+lbs of armour can't help but feel hard done by in this situation.
Now let's consider LARP combat by comparison. Well, if you are a basic bod you have one hit per location in CP-LARP, and as long as you have a leg to stand on and an arm to wield something, then, like the Black Knight in Monty Python, you can carry on fighting. Only if you are reduced to zero hits in your head or chest are you rendered hors de combat (well, you could also be left limbless I suppose).
Most hits only do a single point of damage although various enhancements to your character can boost this, eg if you have extra strength. Armour gives you more hit points although certain attack forms ignore armour.
You are fighting with rubber-clad weapons that are not much heavier than a rolled-up newspaper (broadsheet, mind you) and somewhat better balanced. Re-enactors used to hefting lumps of metal will suddenly feel like superbeings as they whirl these lightweight bits of fluff around.
One area where CP-LARP combat has the edge over Regia style combat in terms of realism is that only hefty whacks count as hits. The rather slimy tactic employed by the spearman in the scenario I mentioned above would carry no weight here, it would be ignored as an invalid hit. You actually have to 'hit' someone in order to score a hit in CP-LARP. This means that, unlike the Regia mechanic that tends to promote a rather 'sneaky' and very safety-conscious style of combat that doesn't actually look as visually exciting as it should, the CP-LARP mechanic results in weapons whirling and slamming into people as should happen in a real fight. And headshots are permitted! However, because 'higher-level' warriors have lots of hit points per location this also reduces emphasis on personal combat skill of the participant, and often they don't even bother defending themselves from their attackers, which detracts from the realism somewhat.
Oh yes, the thrusting thing. CP-LARPers don't like spears, don't like thrusting attacks – maybe they see them as dangerous, but I think there's an element of prejudice here. Spears are not perceived as 'heroic' weapons. But in truth, spears are very effective weapons especially when deployed in large numbers and in multiple ranks. If spears were allowed in LARP combat they might quickly start to dominate the battlefield and this would upset all those sword-idolisers.
Another oddity. On my second day I was 'monstering', portraying a rat-man. For fun I took a two-weapons combi – axe and sword. My natural inclination was to use the axe to hook my opponents shield aside and then follow through by slamming into their exposed body with the sword. This seemed entirely reasonable to me, and I used this successfully in my first engagement, with shocking ease in fact – not that I took my opponent down of course as they were armoured, probably more than one-hit-per-location, and I was only a measly one-hit-per-entire-body ratman. But later when I was discussing this with someone they frowned and said 'you're not allowed to hook an opponents' weapon or shield aside'. 'WTF?!!' was my response. This seemed to me to be a deliberate attempt by the rules to negate use of personal skill.
Now this might actually be viewed as a desirable objective of the rules – CP want their participants to feel heroic regardless of their actual level of skill, this being an integral aspect of *why* people role-play. However there is no escaping the fact, in LARP, that your character is inevitably limited by your own physical capability. If you can't climb a 300' cliff, leap a chasm, run for three days without tiring, then neither can your LARP character in a game that is being run in real-time with multiple participants. There are some imaginative things that could be done by referees to allow you to perform physical feats that you are not really capable of but these would probably need them to call 'time-out' stopping the action for everyone else while you perform them at the much slower speed you are really capable of or else are transported by some sort of conveyance to the place you want your character to get to by leaping / climbing / somersaulting.
My feeling is that LARP shouldn't be designed to dumb down combat or nullify use of your actual skills. The game mechanics already allow you to 'bolt-on' stuff like physical invulnerability and magic spells. I don't think they should also prevent you from doing stuff you can really do, or encourage the view that it's 'unfair' for someone to use their real-life prowess in things. If you don't want to be challenged by the realities of life in any way at all then don't play a 'Live Action' game.
Casting spells was quite nice. You have to learn some simple incantations to do this, and you are given slips of paper representing your spells. People who are the stricter sort of Christians probably wouldn't feel 100% comfortable with all these incantations and invoking of various spirits, nor the rituals that call upon various fantasy or pagan deities. Jack Chick could make a career out of LARP alone if only he knew what went on at these things. I was a sort of fighter/cleric type on my first day, with a fistful of healing spells. I managed to avoid the mayhem of the front line (not having very much capacity for damage absorption) but I did get into a couple of skirmishes and took down a couple of ratty dudes. I also used up my full quota of healing spells, saving various people's lives in the process. And if I may be pardoned a little male salacity here, a great thing to do if you are a healer is hang around near female archers. Inevitably one or more of them will get whacked in the chest by the enemy returning fire with their foam-rubber-tipped arrows. And when you heal them, you have to place your hands on the afflicted body part, heh heh heh (Sid James Laugh!). Maybe you need to watch out for lawsuits if you do this over in the States though. Now go look up 'Sid James' on Wikipedia.
It should be emphasised again that this was my first CP-LARP event and there are a lot more rules and mechanics that I have yet to learn. Obviously, the complexity is far in excess of the simple mechanic employed in Regia-style re-enactment combat. There are elements in both combat styles that are nice depictions of reality, and at the same time elements of both that grate somewhat. Neither is ideal. LARP is more 'fun' I guess but re-enactment is better for personal combat skill development I think, because it teaches you to be more defensive and doesn't discourage use of technique – though 'headshot-blindness' is still a problem of course, and Regia combat is sometimes a little too defensive with its touch-hit rule. Some kind of bastard combination of the two might be better than each individually if one were striving for maximum realism and immersion whilst stopping short of actual injury.
Well, you're not so likely to get scarred for life doing LARP as you are doing historical battle re-enactment. Accidents inevitably happen when you are swinging lumps of metal about, even if they are unsharpened or have ball-bearings welded to the tips. During my Regia career I have been hospitalised four times. I carry three visible scars to this day. However it should be mentioned that in my impetuous youth I did tend to be one of the 'heavy mob' of front-line silastic armourfiends who got into the fiercest fighting. Also Regia combat these days is much more safety oriented and genteel but when I started around 1990 things were a little different and a little wilder. Oh, and did I mention I have a magnetic head?
It's actually very unlikely that you will be maimed on a Regia battlefield and it's fairly easy to 'stay out of trouble' if you aren't keen on getting into a crush. You must be aware that accidents *can* happen - but you are more likely to be injured playing rugby. (That's American Football without the padding).
So, LARP is all safe and cuddly, with those foam rubber weapons? Erm, not entirely. On the second day of the event someone was stretchered off with what looked from a distance like a badly dislocated or compound-fractured ankle.
I think there are more girls who do CP-LARP than battle re-enactment in Regia's period, although this may not hold true for other forms of living history.
I think the male/female ratio at Wigan was roughly 60/40. I think this would compare with a 75/25 ratio for Regia events. Though I must emphasise this is only my gut impression.
Fact is that the dark ages and early medieval period were not a terribly feminine era. Clothing for women was somewhat unflattering and Christian sensibilities of that era required women to wear headgear at all times in public – the wimple. The bias cut hadn't been invented and dresses were required to be ankle-length. There weren't many pagans around in Europe after 800AD either. Even the Vikings had largely converted by the time they were raiding Britain's shores.
LARP by contrast is brimming with new-age, pagan and wiccan sensibilities and you get to wear whatever you like, so hair flows freely and out come the leather basques or short, skimpy elven dresses for the girls. Hey look, I'm not stereotyping, just telling it like it is! I didn't force them to wear that stuff...
I get the impression that there are many girls at these LARP events who would never in a million years sit down with a piece of paper, a handful of dice and a pencil, and create a tabletop RPG character. Only an impression, mind. I'm not saying it's a good or bad thing, it's just interesting from a psychological viewpoint. I have heard that women tend to identify the 'self' with the physical body more than men do. Maybe this is why LARP is more attractive to girls than more abstract forms of roleplay. Of course this is a generalisation and based on intuition rather than hard data but on the whole tabletop appears to be a much more male-dominated hobby in terms of numbers than LARP does.
Age demographics – roughly similar between Regia and CP-LARP though perhaps weighted a bit more towards the younger end of the scale for LARP. A mix of ages from late teens through to middle age, with most common age bracket being people in their 20's.
What does it feel like?
Odd. The peculiar thing about LARP is that I normally associate fantasy roleplay with a small group of characters exploring some interesting locale or on some rescue mission or hunting for an artifact, or whatever. But with CP-LARP you have a party consisting of over a hundred people. In short you have a variegated mixed-race *army* of low-to-mid level characters traipsing around fighting off hordes of monsters.
People take the roleplaying to varying degrees. Few people truly play their roles to the hilt throughout the entire 'time-in' period. Also I think many compromises are made in the name of working together. The Jhereg faction of which my guard unit were a part includes both elves and drow, who in a 'classic' D&D style fantasy world should be at each others' throats. I saw a bunch of people of a variety of races and creeds including a member of my own guard unit kneel and receive the 'Blessing of Lolth' which rather surprised me. But you see in this world the drow aren't the bad guys – they're a 'bit nasty, a bit tasty, you don't wanna cross 'em' – but that's the point. In my mind 'real' drow don't need a reason or an excuse to be unpleasant to you, especially if you are not one of their kind or even their particular household!
The drow 'Matron Mother' described someone as 'honourable' at one point, using the word in a complimentary way – a word that my drow would equate with weakness – ethics and honour are after all an artifice invented to protect the weak from the strong, and strength and power are the only things truly worthy of respect are they not?
Hey, I'm not really complaining as such. If the drow were played in CP-LARP the way I envisage them then I don't think they'd be suitable as a player character race. Also, I have only been to this one event. I have heard stories about the CP-LARP drow and how nasty they can be. Perhaps I am too quick to judge. And who am I to impose my old-fashioned Gygax-ian view of the drow on a world that wants to see them as 'kewl'? Perhaps I should create a drow character of my own sometime and try to do better before I criticise.
When I was in amongst the ratmen on day two, the referees got us all lined up in a very orderly formation to face the enemy. I thought it was too orderly. The chap in front kept telling us to shape up and 'act like a real army'. But the ratmen were supposed to be an undisciplined rabble, or so I thought. They worship a god of corruption after all. I felt that sometimes the roleplaying motivations hadn't quite been thought through. On the other hand maybe the referee was exercising his own little power trip. Both LARP and Living History are full of frustrated drill-sergeants.
This is all very subjective and I am just airing personal niggles. None of this detracted hugely from my enjoyment of the event, which was, overall, enjoyable.
So, LARP or Living History?
I think that both of these hobbies have things to offer. CP-LARP is great fun and allows for more heroic and diverse roleplay than Regia-style re-enactment, but it does have a slight 'cartoony' atmosphere about it. Regia is good for developing personal combat skill and is somehow more immersive – you really feel as if you are a tenth century warrior at times. There's something about the smell of metal and the whole ambience of the Regia campsite, it's more subtle than the gaudiness of LARP.
I do intend to go to some more LARP events in future, re-enactment events also. Both have something unique and highly enjoyable to offer. If you could somehow merge the heroics of LARP with the gritty realism of re-enactment, add a dash of tabletop roleplaying into the mix, maybe you'd be approaching what it truly feels like to be your RPG character...