Confession time: When I was a kid, I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. My mom sent me to an after school program, and the guy who ran it, John, was just really good at D&D. Good enough to spark a minor obsession in me, and I stayed interested in the game for a long time. It was exciting to lose myself in a world of wizards and monsters, away from the mundanities of third grade. So, I think I’m pretty well positioned to understand Live Action Role Playing, or LARPing, which is basically a Dungeons & Dragons/Theater Improv mash-up. It’s D&D on a human scale, in which you enact the character you are.
There’s no dice-rolling in LARPing. Instead, when you encounter a foe — invariably another person “in character” — you might challenge them to a duel and draw your big pink foam sword; or, you might cast a spell, if you’ve got that going on. How that works out is up to them. Josh Ginzberg ’15, who is writing this year’s third annual LARP along with five other students, stressed the collaborative aspect of roleplaying.
“If someone says, ‘I’m a pink elephant,’ don’t say, ‘No you’re not,’ say, ‘Oh yeah, from where?’ Or, ‘Yeah? Well, I’m a rhino and I hate you,’” he said. “The point is to build something rather than shoot down what other people are building.”
Although Ginzberg does not have a background in theater, many LARPers do, since improv is at the heart of the game. Darbus Oldham ’17, a self-professed “theater person,” is working with Ginzberg to put on the 2015 LARP.
“In some ways LARP can be said to be a cross between Dungeons & Dragons and theater,” he said. “It takes sort of the world-building and the roleplaying aspects of Dungeons & Dragons and it melds it with the idea that you are becoming a character for this period of time.”
This idea isn’t new and actually has roots at Swarthmore that stretch back at least to 1983, with the formation of the Pterodactyl Hunt. That, according to Ginzberg, counts as an especially “combat-driven form” of LARP, but its more recent incarnation as a gigantic, complex world-building event was started in 2013 by Ben Schwartz ’13, affectionately known as “Books.” Schwartz began LARPing in high school at a summer camp, the Wayfinders Experience, and fell in love.
“[LARP] combines my loves of theater, improvisation, storytelling, worldbuilding, fantasy, and adventure into something wholly unique,” they said. “I’ve formed incredible friendships through roleplaying, learned and developed countless new skills, and discovered a whole lot about myself in the process,” In fact, Schwartz has gone on to work at two LARP summer camps post-graduation, at The Wayfinder Experience and at Trackers.
Swarthmore’s first non-Dactyl LARP was called “The Secret Major,” set at a fictional college. About 80 students participated, and Schwartz had to write a character sheet for each of them. To give you an idea of the enormity of this undertaking, Ginzberg aims to make each of his character sheets about 700 words.
“[I try to] create some sort of moral foundation for the character,” they said, “and then also include some connections and then, for people who want a personal goal, write that in.” Players are assigned characters on the basis of a survey that they complete, in which they can indicate their favorite fandoms, topics they might want to stay away from or confront actively, and their preferred allegiance to good or to evil or to neither, amongst others. Ginzberg divvied up the writing process with his five co-authors, but Schwartz did it all themself in three weeks.
This year’s LARP is on April 4 and has 98 participants so far; it is — without giving too much away — set in a pocket universe called “The Crossways,” so called because “a lot of universes connect to it,” according to Ginzberg. Characters have wandered into this universe accidentally, for the most part: Perhaps they were “walking in a field” or, as in “The Chronicles of Narnia,” they entered a closet. But now something has gone wrong, and suspicion lies on a research facility called SIRIUS, which happens to be exactly the size of Swarthmore College. Characters from all over this universe are arriving at SIRIUS. It’s there, after an afternoon of workshops on everything from combat to improv to just getting comfortable LARPing, that the game will commence.
Once it does, it’s near-impossible to know how it will go. “It’s really incredible, some of the choices that people pull out in the course of a game,” Ginzberg said, recounting how, during “The Secret Major,” his character had numerous goals and accomplished none of them. “It was better for it not happening almost, because I went with the flow of the game and I saw what other characters were doing and I interacted with a couple characters … [Y]ou learn things about your character as you progress through the game, as you interact with people whom maybe you knew for a thousand years before the game or maybe you met this very night.”
Oldham agreed that LARPing can be an opportunity to explore a character, and even a side of yourself, with which you’re unfamiliar. Before he came to Swarthmore, he participated in a year-round LARP program called Westfinder in Berkeley, Calif., where he even met Schwartz. In one game there, he roleplayed a politician. Oldham, who describes himself as an anarchist, said that “having to be that character who’s so different from me … was a very interesting opportunity to get an insight on a completely different mindset from the way I normally think.”
Despite all this room for exploration, LARPs do usually have plots, and, to ensure that things stay somewhat on path, Ginzberg, Oldham, and their co-organizers will assume the roles of Helping Player Characters, or HPCs. Their job is “to be a little more distant to the plot and help ensure that some of the major events move along and help ensure that people are doing things,” as Ginzberg put it. Think of them kind of like Yoda: wise, friendly, but not the hero of the story. Ginzberg will be playing the chief of security of SIRIUS, and Oldham will be a research scientist.
In fact, weeks before the game began, its creators were already setting its plot in motion. Those who signed up for the LARP received an email entitled “A Night of Upheaval,” which describes a shadowy figure who has retreated into the woods outside of Megatropolis, the city that occupies most of the Crossways universe. This person detonates some sort of explosive device, but for what reason or purpose we don’t know.
After the success of “The Secret Major” in 2013, and Schwartz’s graduation, Ginzberg and other students decided over the summer to plan the 2014 LARP. Lacking the near obsessive work ethic that enabled Schwartz to single-handedly organize that event, they “decided to run it more officially, get some administration backing, get some SAC funding if we could, and try to turn it into a yearly thing,” said Ginzberg. For the most part, this was successful, though it wasn’t easy: Aside from writing what amounts to hundreds of pages of text for world-building purposes, there are the logistical challenges of securing funding and spaces — this year, Paces, Bond Hall, and Sci 101 are reserved for the event — as well as informing Public Safety that there will be around 100 individuals running around campus with foam swords and that “some of them may say ‘I want to kill you’ to other people,” according to Ginzberg. Due to the immense amount of work it has required, many of last year’s organizers stepped down this year, and Ginzberg and some new faces, like Oldham, stepped up to the plate.
They couldn’t have done it without help, of course, and a lot of that came from Mike Elias, the Assistant Director of Student Activities, Leadership, and Greek Life. As one of the few large-scale dry events on campus, it’s easy to see why the LARP might appeal to Swarthmore’s administrators. Still, Ginzberg gives a lot of credit to Elias, saying that “this wouldn’t be happening without his help.”
LARPing, however, is not that expensive — one does not need a sound system, after all, and the stage is built-in to the campus. It does however require a modicum of foam swords, many of which have been borrowed from Psi Phi’s Dactyl Hunt; others have been left over from last year’s LARP. I asked why people in a futuristic universe like The Crossways don’t use guns, and Ginzberg cited practical concerns about students yelling “I want to kill you” at each other, with Nerf guns, in the dark. “There’s always some way to write into the world that guns don’t work,” he explained. “Last year it was something to do with … warping gravity… I’m not actually sure what our reason is this year, but we’re definitely going for the swords.”
So, alas, LARPers will not be able to shoot each other, but if you’d all like to do anything short of that — including, perhaps, casting hexes on your real-life friends and enemies — then Swarthmore’s third annual LARP might be a place you’d like to be this Saturday.