Live role-playing is a great idea. YES IT IS. All the stuff 95% of gamesmasters are really terrible at – verbal scene setting, establishing who is where when, getting across the physicality of the gameworld (and, indeed, the physics) – dealt with at a stroke. No more having to find synonyms for “damp” or “shadowy”, no more arguing over who was at the back of the party when the bugbears attacked – and from the players’ point of view, no more having to depend on the whims of the referee. Live roleplaying (and now we’ve been introduced, let’s call it LRP) should be a shot of pure fantastic intensity – as close as you can get to that initial goal of the RPG hobby, a “let’s pretend” for grown-ups.

But. But but but. Stop and think about it for a minute and you’ll realise the serious conceptual problems it had. First – though not worst – you had the problem of spontaneity. It was always pretty difficult to get a tabletop D&D session going but even then all you really needed were the dice, pens, and dudes to join in. For LRP you need a venue (a sufficiently dungeonlike one at that), equipment, people to be the monsters and enemies – so you can rule the “…And Dragons” bit out from the off. You have to get a whole infrastructure in place before you can even start, which inevitably means the element of spontaneity is completely removed. No deciding to play Call Of Cthulhu at the last minute – you can’t even change the scenario: you’re always playing a set game. A set game which inevitably aimed at the hobby’s lowest common denominator, at that – with such high set-up costs an LRP business needed as broad an appeal as possible, so anything quirky and demanding was never on the menu.

The hobby’s lowest common denominator, though, was fantasy gaming – “hack n slay” and “dungeon crawls”, in the disdainful slang used by roleplaying’s more middlebrow elements (me included). So two further problems present themselves. First of all, fantasy gaming tends to involve a fair bit of magic, and magic is quite hard to handle in an LRP setting, owing to it not existing: or at least not existing at the behest of a teenage boy in a silly hat in Chislehurst Caves. To simulate magic you need somebody hanging around who can legislate on what the magic does – in other words, you need a referee whose job it is to intrude in the most illusion-breaking way possible, by stopping the game to tell everyone they’ve been hit by a fireball, and say “ouch” now please. The second problem is that the words “hack n slay” conjure up something considerably more violent than LRP could really feasibly countenance. “Slay” was certainly right out, and even “hack” would be difficult to explain to a concerned parent. At the heart of commercial live role-playing was the equipping of youngsters with big padded sticks for the purposes of beating one another up: the hobby could try its hardest to get away from this but its efforts were in vain.

And here’s the biggest problem with LRP. Some teenagers are going to enjoy hitting people with padded sticks more than others. Not unnaturally, the enjoyment is broadly correlated with how good they are at it. But the essence of what LRP is trying to simulate is the self-redefinition of one’s abilities and skills, and the specifics of the games it drew on involved the gradual improvement of those fictional skills over time. If you have a weedy 12 year old boy and a six-foot 15 year old doing an LRP, you can call the younger kid a 10th Level Rune Lord all you want but the other guy is still going to hit him harder and better. So either you involve a referee even more, and break the illusion, or you break something bigger: one of the absolutely core reasons role-playing games appealed to anyone in the first place. And it’s not just combat – it’s running away from monsters, or hiding in shadows, or any of the many in-game dice rolls which suddenly have a real physical analogue: these all have to be dealt with in ways that either wreck your verisimilitude or drive away the slow or fat or cowardly kids. Which, with the best will in the world, make up a fair chunk of your target market.

I was slow, fat and cowardly, so in the next post I’ll talk about my personal experience of commercial LRP, and how the organisers solved these problems – or didn’t.