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.)