May 12

I WAS A GOBLIN: In Which I Was Actually A Goblin

TMFD11 comments • 1,096 views

I was suspicious of Live Action Role Playing for a long time. I had three excellent reasons: it couldn’t possibly work, it verged dangerously close to SPORTS, and most of all White Dwarf strongly hinted it was a stupid idea. At the time I took White Dwarf very seriously. There was a whole underworld of role-playing fanzines who saw White Dwarf as the enemy of all that was righteous in the hobby, intent on straitjacketing the minds of infant games with their barely disguised pimping of glossy, shallow Games Workshop products. These fanzines were broadly right. But I didn’t read them: as far I was concerned, the Dwarf was mega and skill.

Games Workshop – White Dwarf’s publishers (hence the pimping) – had placed certain bets on the direction the HOBBY OF THE 80S was going to swing in. Their bets involved carefully painted dioramas rather than minibus rides to wet caves, so the magazine spent a lot of time taking the piss out of LARP. Some of this was also the unslakable thirst of the nerd to find someone they can look down on – sad we may be, but we don’t wave rubber swords around (we only paint lead ones). And some of it, it must be said, was justified. Like a lot of geek businesses in the 80s, LARP attracted a few thrusting young Thatcherites whose bold entrepreneurial spirit was matched only by their willingness to scarper with the money at the first opportunity. It gained a reputation for spivviness.

By the time I actually tried it, LARP was struggling towards respectability. It had a moderate following, enough to fill a stretch of Chislehurst Caves every weekend. It had a rules system of sorts, and punters dedicated enough to invest time in grinding their alternate self up levels. On the way there, my friend – who had been before – introduced me to an impressive figure, a boy of 13 or 14 who was now a Level 8 Ranger. What would I be, my friend asked. I wasn’t sure. Of course this meant I ended up as a Cleric – the “playing in defense” of the LRP world. My job would be to thump a monster or two with my rubber mace and to cast healing spells on some of the other boys.

Thrilling stuff nonetheless! With 6 or 7 other 12-year-olds and two grown-up referees, I set off into the dungeons. After that I mostly remember running around and shouting.

The grown-up referees, unsurprisingly, had a lot to do. An example of play might run as follows.

GROUP: Runs around and shouts.
MONSTERS (yet more 12 year old boys): Run out shouting.
ALL: Whack! Thump! Ow! Mister – are we dead? Are we?

It rapidly became obvious why nobody wanted to be the cleric. To cast your Cure Wounds spell you had to stand still and recite something. If you did this, you would get hit on the head. So you didn’t. The dungeon was no place for fair play.

Or for open combat. In a tabletop RPG, even one with miniatures, fighting tended to occur in the form of miniature battles or brawls. A group of adventurers would come upon a group of monsters, perhaps they would be DICING or DRINKING GROG. The monsters would sieze their arms and the MELEE would begin.

This did not happen in Chislehurst Caves. What you learned very quickly is that in a closed environment of corridoors and small rooms, all combat is hit and run guerilla fighting. Soon the whole country would learn this, virtually on FPS games and physically in Laser Tag. This was little consolation when my noble cleric got cut down like a rat by some little fucker reaching through an opening in the wall and stabbing me.

Still! My party’s loss was my gain, for now the real fun could begin and I could play a monster for the second half of the day. This was considerably better. For a start, there was no penalty for dying, so all monsters were suicide troops, happy to take preposterous risks to fuck the players up. You also got some great make-up and masks (which could fall down your face in a fight: a real kobold would not suffer such indignity).

I obviously impressed the referees with my monstering enough to land the apparently plumb job as a Vampire Lord. I was – so I believed – to be the final boss in the dungeon. I was given a coffin to lie in, and told to rise when the players came in. I waited, in anticipation of a starring role. What I wasn’t told is that they’d found an enchanted stake, so no sooner had I risen than the referee curtly told me to lie back down, for good this time. But it was fun while it lasted.

I never LARPed again, but I enjoyed my little taste of it. It was ramshackle and enjoyable, like British Bulldogs for the scrawny, stout or weak kids. A few moments were genuinely thrilling, and it taught me an important lesson: that it was very hard to simulate the rush and panic of physical action in a tabletop game. So the lesson was to accept the limitations, or to downplay it entirely. Or – and this is what I decided to do – to get a bit more creative…

(I Was A Goblin returns after a several-year absence, and I’ll be taking it to the conclusion always intended – looking at my experiences in the indie RPG scene in the 90s. So stay tuned.)


  1. 1
    Pete on 16 May 2012 #

    YAY! The return of the best FT column ever (well Popular is quite good, and the TOp 25 Scary Things was surprisingly finished, but you know what I mean).

  2. 2
    Tom on 16 May 2012 #

    The place I went to – Labyrinthe – is STILL GOING http://www.labyrinthe.co.uk/introduction/history/ so obviously their business model was a bit stronger than White Dwarf sneeringly made out. (It was Treasure Trap – which did go bust – who WD were rudest about though.)

  3. 3
    CarsmileSteve on 17 May 2012 #

    hurray hurray! I never LARPed but, due to winning a competition in short-lived White Dwarf rival GamesMaster*, I did own a full-head-covering latex orc mask for several years which was v handy for halloween etc.

    *now seemingly ungoogleable due to a computer magazine nicking its name

  4. 4
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 17 May 2012 #

    Probably you should take the mask off now and then, though, carsmile

    ^^^Obligatory shot at open goal \o/\o/\o/

  5. 5
    Pete on 17 May 2012 #

    I also LARPed once at Chislehurst Caves and all the way down I was bullied – I mean light-heartedly ribbed – that they would make me play a dwarf. I got there, and they took one look at me and said halfling, but a shitty dagger in my hand (because my “race” was not strong enough fro a sword, and I too got killed in the second room and sulked.

    Our party was so shit we got another go, where I sulked at the back, just to see what was in the later rooms. I got stabbed in the back in the first room second time round by the person we assumed was our Gamesmaster but had apparently never been identified as such, “ha ha, caught you out there stupid halfling”. My friends went back, I never did.

  6. 6
    Alan not logged in on 18 May 2012 #

    when I was a Goblin
    when i was a when i was a goblin
    when i was a GOBliiin

  7. 7
    DV on 19 May 2012 #

    My friend who got involved in LARPing semi-professionally said that it was a great way to meet girls.

  8. 8
    Triffid Farm on 21 May 2012 #

    Tom was on a radio show where this topic came up, and said NOTHING.

  9. 9
    Ed on 6 Jun 2012 #

    Belated thanks for this, which led me to the joys of the full IWAG series.

    Re White Dwarf’s dismissal of LARP: it was not always so fiercely defensive of Games Workshop’s infrastructure. I vividly remember an editorial reflecting on these new-tangled computer-based pastimes (Pong? Space invaders?) and speculating that they could be the future of fantasy gaming. “Of course, the games are very primitive now,” it said, roughly, “but imagine what might be possible as the technology advances. You can imagine a party of adventurers gathered, not over dice and books of rules, but over joysticks and keypads, their fingers frantically working to press buttons to swing an axe or cast a spell, as they battle against a horde of goblins on the screen in format of them.”

    I had been shown the future, and I didn’t like the look of it. I didn’t quite believe it would ever really happen, but I was crap at Space Invaders, which also seemed much too much like sport. I was being threatened with a world where the most important characteristics were not Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma (which I considered my strongest attributes, hem-hem) but Dexterity.

    I had moved on by the time gaming reached that point, but it still seems to me to be an example of how technological progress is not always an improvement.

  10. 10
    Ed on 6 Jun 2012 #

    #9 Gah… “…in FRONT of them.” as I’m sure you worked out. Damn you, Autocorrect, damn you to hell!

  11. 11
    slideyfoot on 16 May 2020 #

    I’ve only tried LARP once so far, which I just realised I wrote up. Completely forgot about it until this article reminded me. From reading what I wrote a decade ago, sounds like I enjoyed it, so I need to give it another go (especially as I’ve now got several friends heavily into LARP): http://www.slideyfoot.com/2010/06/warwick-larp.html

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