As the sesquicentennial approaches, a group of students is starting a new tradition at Swarthmore. The group, comprised of six students, including Riley Collins ’16, Randy Doyle ’16, Raymond Elias ’15, Leah Foster ’14, Josh Ginzberg ’15, and Julian Marin ’14, is organizing a Live Action Role Playing game (LARP). LARPs, in a broad sense, have had a long history at Swarthmore. The idea of LARPing may seem completely unfamiliar to some or overly-complicated to others, but it isn’t necessarily as complex as people might think.
LARP stands for Live Action Role Playing, and is similar in some sense to tabletop Roleplaying games (RPGs), like Dungeons & Dragons. These games are played on tables sometimes using boards and figures and require the players to use their imagination to visualize and play. Unlike these tabletop games, LARPs take place in real-world locations. LARPs, at their roots, are multiplayer games that take place in ‘the real world’. The main distinction between a LARP and other games is that a LARP requires the player to represent the characters themselves instead of using a virtual avatar, like a videogame with the player as the character instead of only controlling one by proxy. Larping is comparable to a large scale improv game.
“Participants in a LARP act as a single character in an imaginary world, playing out a story by improv’ing with other participants and props made for the LARP,” said Foster. The big difference between LARPing and improv theatre is that there is no single stage and players are given character sheets, which allow players to get a sense of who their character is. Generally they provide information ranging from the rank and race of the character to personality and preferred battle style. As LARPs have overarching stories, players are given knowledge of certain events according to who their character is. If a player is given the role of a spy, then he will have more access to plot information than a player given the role of a cook or a soldier.
Rules can vary from LARP to LARP, with mechanics such as magic, battle, and crafting working differently depending on how the organizers decide to balance them. Safety is an important concern, and so one of the common features in them is the existence of safe words, a concept that shouldn’t be unfamiliar to kinksters. The safe word signals that a player wants to step out of the game for whatever reason.
The idea of a Swarthmore LARP originated an event organized last year by Ben “Books” Schwartz ’13. Schwartz discovered his interest in LARPing at the Wayfinder Experience, a summer camp in New York, and decided to share his interests with fellow students at Swarthmore. “LARPing is playing make-believe with a higher budget,” said Schwartz, “and I think everyone could do with that little bit more play energy in their lives.”
The story of last year’s LARP centered on an attack by demons on Mulligan College, a small liberal arts school with a major in magical studies. The goal was to defeat the demons and save Mulligan College and the world. Schwartz dove into the preparations wholeheartedly, and wrote almost 50,000 words in under a month with help from other students on costuming, set design, and engineering. Eighty people joined the LARP, with seventy-seven having had no prior LARPing experience. The reaction was positive, and the current LARP council came together due to interests expressed by players and other students in continuing the tradition. This year, the LARP is being put together by a council because they hope to increase the scale of the event and campus involvement.
Organizing LARPs require many people with different talents working together. Writers, costume designers, engineers, and planners are crucial in creating LARPs, and the time involved increases exponentially with the scale of the game. First, the organizers must plan the story and the event. They must talk with administration to ensure safety, and attempt to find a way in which preparing the LARP is as unobtrusive as possible to the campus at large.
“You’d be surprised at how worried Public Safety gets over people running around with foam weapons yelling at each other at night,” said Collins.
After dealing with administrative issues and preparing an outline for the story, the organizers must crowdsource certain parts of worldbuilding to volunteers. Worldbuilding is a concept involving the creation of backstory and lore for the setting of the LARP, and is comparable to set design. Writing is essential to any LARP and is often the most time-consuming task.
When the world and lore have been finalized, organizers must next create character sheets for the players. In some instances, characters are assigned to players blindly, but in the upcoming LARP the organizers plan on distributing surveys for potential players to fill out.
Once the lore and character sheets are completed and the date of LARP draws nearer, the building of costumes and props become necessary.
Deciding when and where to build set pieces can be a challenge and it can be difficult to balance unobtrusiveness to the campus and safety for players. When finding a location suitable for building, it is important to consider accessibility for students, and access to electricity. The organizers expressed a desire not to disturb the campus, faculty, and other students.
The organizers of the LARP originally wished to remain unknown to players, but changed their minds upon returning from winter break. Their reasons were understandable; they didn’t want people following them around during the LARP, or asking the organizers to make their characters a certain way. The organizers, or game masters, meet weekly to discuss logistics and planning, and communicated heavily during break over Skype.
The experience of the LARP itself is entirely different from the perspective of the game masters. Often, game masters cannot participate as freely in the LARPs they plan, as they have too much information on the game. This is referred to as meta-knowledge, the possession of knowledge by a player that is beyond what their character should know. Having too much information about the game’s story makes it less enjoyable, as a large part of LARP is about discovery. If a player knows too much, they do not get the chance to experience it in the way the game masters intend. Playing a LARP with too much meta-knowledge is equivalent to going into a movie knowing that Rosebud was Kane’s sleigh, that Tyler Durden was only a hallucination, or that Ashton Kutcher was a bad actor all along. As a result, game masters tend to have either limited or rigidly structured roles to keep the game from stagnating. “Our goal is not to play, but to make it fun for the players,” said Marin.
This year’s LARP is scheduled for Saturday, April 26. On the day of the event, there will be improv classes as well as other workshops to better introduce players to LARPing. The plot and theme will be revealed gradually through short stories and other forms of media as April draws closer. Anyone interested in participating in the LARP can join the Facebook event page, “Swarthmore Spring LARP 2014” as soon as it’s updated and can keep an eye out for the campus-wide e-mail.