With tentative steps that crunch the multicolored carpeting of leaves
below, two gangs slowly creep toward each other. Their lips curl back,
revealing menacing scowls as they face off, jutting forth their weapons and
issuing the occasional taunt. Tension hangs in the crisp autumn air, so
thick you could cut it with a spork.
Someone unleashes a guttural scream, and the two groups rush each other,
colliding in a chaos of flailing limbs and weaponry. One man, his face
painted entirely in black, bellows a fearsome battle cry and strikes his
victim. The crushing blow results in a resounding pfffft.
It is a foam sword, after all.
About once a month, these men and women — among them business owners,
college students and accountants — don armor and other medieval garb and
tromp out to the woods, where they delight in bonking in each other with
foam and rubber weaponry. They pretend they’re countesses, orcs, sorcerers,
warriors, elves and evil dark overlords, erect tepees and encampments, cook
over fire pits. And they whack each other with squishy implements of doom. A
This is live-action role playing, better known as
LARP. Boiled down to its basics, LARP is simply dress-up and
make-believe for adults. The players create characters — from vampires to
baronesses — and inhabit the roles, much like improvisational theater,
maneuvering through a complex set of rules that vary from game to game. LARP
sprang from tabletop role-playing games (RPGs), the most famous of which is
Dungeons & Dragons. And, like D&D,
LARP has suffered from misconceptions and unflattering portrayals
by the press and the religious right. Everyone from Tipper Gore to the
Christian Information Ministries has warned that RPGs can lead to derelict
behavior or occultism. Even some role-playing gamers themselves say the
level of psychological immersion in LARP is troubling, blurring a critical
line between reality and fantasy.
And many say it’s just plain dorky.
But LARPers, as they call themselves, say their personal form of
entertainment is good, clean — albeit rather strange — fun, a harmless form
of escapism little different from improv or video games.
Plus, you get to hit people with a stick.
Charles Asbury is an elf. A hulking, broad-shouldered, 6-foot-2-inch elf,
with hair shorn into a crew cut and a deceptively intimidating mug.
“Connie mistook me for an ogre,” he says of another player, laughing.
“She said, ‘You look awful tall for an elf. You sure you ain’t got no ogre
blood in ya?’”
As another player helps adjust his armor, Asbury’s metal epaulets clink
as he offers a matter-of-fact shrug. “Yeah, I have to go talk to a dragon
later,” he deadpans.
Asbury, along with dozens of others, is gearing up to play
KANAR, a weekend-long LARP in Milan, that meets several times a year.
KANAR (Knights and Nobles and Rogues) is a nonprofit organization, has a
board of directors and owns the 40-acre woodland where the games take place.
Players have built several permanent structures on the land, like a
shantytown version of Ren Faire.
It’s Saturday afternoon, and sleepy-eyed participants — they were up all
night LARPing — are trickling onto the grounds. As the screeching engines of
nearby Milan Dragway fill the air, brave knights and fair maidens in
historical dress roll into the parking lot in their Civics and SUVs,
clutching Mountain Dew bottles and smoking Marlboro Lights. One player is
trying to attach her pierced elfin ears, and shouts across the parking lot,
“Are you done with the spirit gum yet?” A sorceress is filling her belt with
spells: tennis balls. She nails you with the tennis ball, the spell is cast;
she misses you, and the spell misses you. “Let’s go kill some goblins!” says
a knight, hoisting his shield — a garbage can lid covered in carpet padding
and duct tape.
RPGs are an offshoot of the strategic war games popular in the ’70s. In
essence, an RPG is a game in which the player assumes the role of a
fictional character, and the outcomes of conflicts and combat are decided
with a roll of the dice. RPGs became a mainstream phenomenon in the ’80s,
Dungeons & Dragons exploded onto the pop-culture scene, bringing with it
accusations of occultism, murder and suicides, from parents, pastors and
authorities, who were convinced that a few teen suicide cases were directly
linked to D&D. Apparently, it was the role-playing aspect that was
frightening. From the Web site
“There are many anecdotal stories about youth who have become involved
with RPGs, and have become totally obsessed with the game. They become
emotionally linked to their pretend RPG character. They lose the capacity to
separate fantasy from reality. Some stressor makes them snap. They either
commit suicide or go on a murder rampage. These stories make excellent
material for an ‘urban legend.’ Such stories are widely discussed throughout
North America. Fortunately, RPGs simply do not work this way. A gamer who
commits suicide after having lost his identity in a RPG is probably as rare
as a person who goes into a deep depression and kills themselves because
they went bankrupt playing a game of Monopoly.”
Most of the D&D controversy died along with the “Just Say No” campaign,
as the conservative-Christian machine moved on to the next cause célèbre
that was warping young minds — Marilyn Manson, etc.
RPGs have crept into the spotlight once again in recent years with the
raging popularity of the role-playing card game
Magic: The Gathering, and has received a boost into the 21st century via
the Internet: Such computerized multi-player RPGs as
World of Warcraft have taken off like wildfire in the last year alone.
Other role-playing elements are found in Renaissance Festival players (aka
Rennies) and the
Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a worldwide organization that
focuses on painstakingly exact historical re-enactments of medieval battles.
And it all falls under the greater umbrella of sci-fi, fantasy and graphic
LARPing, however, has always been the upper echelons of dorkdom, an
activity considering by some as too geeky for even the geekiest of geeks.
But despite its long-running stereotype as the realm of acne-ridden teenage
boys and overweight twentysomething virgins, LARPing is edging into the
mainstream consciousness, and the players are becoming more diverse.
There are two schools of LARP: combative (or boffer) and noncombative.
Boffer LARPs use padded weapons and armor in real combat scenarios — the two
largest in Michigan are KANAR and
NERO. Non-combative LARPs focus more on character development and
strategy (conflicts are solved using rock, paper, scissors), and one of the
most popular is
Vampire: The Masquerade, in which the goal is to outwit and outmaneuver
your opponents through political and social manipulation and backstabbing —
like Survivor for the undead. Vampire was created by the publishing
White Wolf; others are independently created. The local LARP
Another Darkness is tailored to be Detroit-centric (one of the fictive
settings is the goth hangout, City Club) but is based on the Vampire
There is no winning in LARP. The goal is to advance the development of
your character through an elaborate point system. The games go on for
months, sometimes years, continually evolving as new characters are added
and old ones die or simply fade away — just like real life. To say LARPing
is complex is a massive understatement. The rules and plot twists can be
mind-boggling. A player called the game master or storyteller is responsible
for holding it all together; like architects of the game, a game master
keeps track of the developments and gives players plot lines and conflict
Because of the open-ended nature of the game, some players spend years
developing their characters, and can become extremely attached to them.
“I’ve seen grown men in tears because their character died,” gamer Owen
“I’ve played with pneumonia,” says KANAR player Dave Champagne. His
girlfriend, Kathy Hulzey, just completed a KANAR weekend in the cold air
with bronchitis. “Only for KANAR would I come out here,” she says.
LARPing “the new crack. Your first hit’s free.”
The immersion is intense. Some players create entire Web sites for their
characters. In KANAR, wooden headstones are erected in a makeshift cemetery
for characters who’ve passed on to that great LARP in the sky.
High school teacher Robin Trombley, 26, has played KANAR regularly since
1998, wearing milky blue contacts that signify his character’s blindness.
“As long as you don’t grow too attached and keep it fun, it’s perfectly
fine,” he says. “But I’ve seen people take it too far, people who quit jobs
to play KANAR because their job didn’t give them the weekend off. I’ve seen
relationships destroyed because of what happened in game, friendships out of
game ruined. Some people do get too involved.”
But for each one of those cases, there are plenty more folks who lead
normal, productive lives when they’re not cavorting through the woods
slaying waiters pretending to be orcs.
Aliki Liadis has played Vampire: The Masquerade, now plays KANAR, and
works as an underwriter for a payment processing company. “When I come off
the field, if I have a beef with your character, I couldn’t care less when
we go off field and go to Denny’s afterwards,” she says. “This is a story, a
game. This isn’t real life. Don’t take it personally.”
Liadis says she doesn’t keep her LARPing hobbies a secret, but “I broach
the subject very slowly. I think it’s easier to ask forgiveness than ask
It’s easy to have a cheap laugh at LARPers’ expense. When goth kids
playing Vampire lean against a wall at City Club and “obfuscate” — crossing
their arms over their chests to signify they’re invisible — it’s hard to
stifle a giggle.
But most LARPers acknowledge that their hobby looks strange to outsiders,
and have a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. “Personally, I couldn’t
give a shit,” Liadis says sweetly. “Hey, I have my hobbies. I do my job, and
I do it exceptionally well.”
Trombley: “The whole concept of going out dressed in funny clothing and
hitting people with sticks appealed to me. Everyone wants to play swords
when they’re little, so why should you stop? I guess I’m kind of a
masochist. I do play the blind guy, after all. I take a lot of falls.”
For most, the appeal is escapism, and pure fun.
“It’s being something more than I can be in the regular world,” Asbury
says. “And I get to hit people with padded sticks, what more could you
She’s very aristocratic. She believes in close friendships.”
Allison Hodges, 20, is speaking of Contessa Isabella Montague, a vampire
nearly 700 years old. Hodges created the Contessa, and plays her several
times a year in the Another Darkness. She was roped into the game by her
boyfriend, and instantly got hooked. She’s part of a newly discovered
species, once thought not to exist: chick gamers. “All the time, I meet guys
who say, ‘You’re a gamer and you’re a girl? That is so cool,’” Hodges says.
Jennifer German, 26, of Livonia, plays with the
Detroit branch of
NERO, combat and all. She says until recently, she was the only
female player. “I take pride in being a role-playing geek,” she says. “More
people are starting to realize all the different kinds of fun it provides.
It’s not just fighting or sitting around talking. I know people who’ve
gotten jobs through
NERO, who’ve met and married. There’s a whole society behind the
German says there are many types of boffer players: from the “stick
jocks” — in it for the combat — to the “angst-and-woe” players, who relish
the drama, both on the field and off. And noncombative LARPs cover a wide
range of genres — goth, sci-fi, horror, fantasy, historical, cyberpunk and
all sorts of cross genres. The variety has changed the once white pimply
face of the average LARPer.
As a 35-year-old African-American family man in a button-down polo and
khaki shorts, Detroiter Jim Gaines’ appearance doesn’t scream “gamer” at
first glance. But he’s been role playing in some form or another since he
was 12, runs Another Darkness, formed his own gaming company, Convention
Enterprises, and is the driving force behind
Trinity Con, a gaming convention in its third year that covers role
playing, sci-fi, anime and everything in between.
“Despite the geek with the bowtie stereotype, I have everyone from
hardcore street roughnecks to goth chicks to lawyers in my game,” he says.
“I’m not going to say there aren’t some serious geeks out there, but you do
have people of all walks of life. One of the most famous gamers out there is
Vin Diesel. I’d like to see someone walk up to him and tell him he’s a
Over the years, Gaines has been intrigued by the many psychological
subtexts to the player-character relationship.
“Parts of their personality tend to bleed into whatever character they
play. You pick up cues to someone’s personality. Jack Nicholson is a great
actor, but in every role he plays, he’s Jack Nicholson. It’s the same thing
with LARP — the good and bad things in your personality stand out.”
Liadis agrees. “When you create a character, you create the person you
want to be,” she says. “People want their character to live forever and be
the best and the strongest. Just like real life.”
"This is pathetic. I can’t believe that these are grown men and women
dressing up like super heros and villians and throwing wads of paper at each
other while yelling “lightning bolt!” Does anyone else find this behavior
This post was made to the Web site
milkandcookies.com, which offered a
short video of LARPers in action.
“Most people think we’re a bunch of goofballs,” says SCA participant and
LARPer Ray Gallerani of Garden City. “But at the same time if you tell
someone you’re a Civil War re-enactor, they don’t care.
“My dad used to absolutely hate it, but now I can explain to him the kind
of trouble that being involved in those groups kept me out of. Instead of
going out with the rest of the high school kids to parties, I was hanging
out in the woods.”
Liadis had her fair share of curious inquires, some friendlier than
others. “Back when I was in Vampire, the single most popular question was,
‘Do you really drink blood?’ No, because we think those people are freaky
too. They were banned from our games because they creeped us out.”
Furthermore, many LARPers are understandably a little gun-shy about
speaking to the press, since they’ve historically been depicted as either
socially inept dweebs or blood-guzzling Satanists. It got so bad that 10
years ago, lifelong gamer Bill Walton decided to create
theescapist.com, a Web site for RPG advocacy, dedicated to fighting
misconceptions and misrepresentations, and undoing the damage inflicted by
sensationalistic reporting and religious campaigns.
“In 1985 Geraldo did a show on D&D called ‘Games that Kill,’” Walton
says. “Then the same Geraldo, during Columbine, talked about how lots of
people play Doom and Quake and D&D and don’t go out and kill people.
So if even Geraldo can change his mind ... that’s a positive sign.
“As it’s become more widespread, the rumors and urban legends fade away.
It used to be geeky and evil, and now it’s just geeky. Geekdom in general
has become more popular. Certainly the popularity of home computers has
helped that. More people consider themselves geeks because they know how to
fix a computer when it breaks down.”
Walton also says role playing can be extremely useful in education. He
has two kids, and plays RPGs with them frequently. “It’s great for kids
because it teaches them how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and how
to see things from a different point of view.”
Trombley, the high school teacher, also supports LARP in education, and
sometimes has his students use role playing to analyze characters in plays
Whether in a childhood game or in the adult world, everyone has
role played in some shape or form at one point.
“When you think about it, people use it all the time in business — role
playing transactions,” Walton says. “And the military uses role playing when
they stage mock attacks. It’s an excellent tool.”
A couple of goblins are taking a smoke break, gathered around a fire pit.
KANAR players are encouraged to cover up anachronistic objects on the field,
to retain the sense of time period. Kathy Hulzey shows off her leather
cigarette holder that clips to her belt; it even has a pocket for a lighter.
“Those are great, because I can get my ass kicked on the ground and never
crush my smokes,” Asbury, the giant elf, says brightly. Cell phones are
allowed in case of emergencies, but users are encouraged to be discreet. In
game, the phones are referred to as “fairy boxes.”
Hulzey opens her spell book, which is written in common Elven (the elf
language). If another player or NPC (non-player character, typically a
goblin, ghoul or monster of some ilk) swipes it and can’t read Elven, they
can’t use her spells against her.
The players are waiting for the next combat, which is achingly slow in
its setup. This afternoon’s “module” is used primarily to advance character
development. During night, it’s more of a free-for-all. Now is time for shop
talk and bitching.
“There was this situation where I had to take out six lesser vampires
“Remember that one time when I was walking through the Elven village and
I totally got jacked?”
“That’s nothing — remember when the dozen flaming skeletons ...”
“... and when I saw 10 NPCs coming down the hill with their hands in the
air, I thought oh shit.”
“Dude, I have to go cook dinner for the tribe.”
Asbury, who was in the National Guard during Desert Storm and utilizes
some of his military fighting tactics while LARPing, is discussing the
differences between KANAR and the SCA.
“There are no head shots here,” he says. “And in the SCA, there’s less
padding, heavier armor, and they go straight for the head.”
He recalls his first time in one of SCA’s typically grandiose large-scale
battle re-enactments. He was on the front line. “I remember taking one
swing, and then waking up in the hospital looking at my 10-gauge helmet that
they had to cut off.”
There’s some cliquishness and separation between the role-playing
entities — some SCA people think the Ren Fest is for pussies, some LARPers
think SCA fighters are dumb jocks, some tabletop role players think LARPers
take it too far. In that, it’s not much different from other subcultures.
Just like any large organization, there are flurries of inner turmoil:
bickering, drama, arguing over how the games should be run. Essentially,
they behave just like a large family. In elf ears.
Gaming is big business, and continually growing. Since Vampire: The
Masquerade was published in 1991, it’s been translated into six
has chapters in 48 states, and an estimated 27,000 registered players
nationwide. New Line Cinema is reportedly planning a film about gamers, the
Sci-Fi Channel is said to have a LARP reality show in the works, and two
indie films about LARPing have been released:
KANAR is nonprofit, and members pay annual dues of $100, or a $20 fee per
game. Other LARPs are privately run, and can be costly to maintain. For one,
simply finding a place to hold them can be expensive and time-consuming.
Gaines used to host Another Darkness at an old ’20s speakeasy in Detroit,
which the owner has since shut down. Detroit’s Vampire games mostly died
along with the venues where they were hosted: the goth coffee shop Ascension
UK, and the on-and-off again dance club, The Labyrinth.
Smaller games are relatively inexpensive to run, but the bigger the
group, the costlier the venture. “I do LARP as a hobby, not to make money,”
Gaines says. “I know a lot of large groups that broke up because of haggling
over money. A LARP is a lot of work in terms of planning, record keeping,
organizing. A lot of people can’t keep up with the effort.”
For boffers, the cost of costuming and weapons can add up quickly. Some
buy fancy latex
weaponry online, but many players fashion their own from Nerf
bats, garbage can lids and dowel rods.
“You can throw together something cheaply if you’re willing to work at
it,” KANAR player Connie Blair says.
Trombley, who plays a blind adventurer, is egging on his compatriots to
jump four feet over a patch of leaves and twigs — for the game’s purposes, a
flaming pit of oil. He takes a flying leap across the foliage and lands
safely, but others aren’t as lucky. The crew then approaches a trail path
where the Gnolls — humanoid creatures with dog-like heads — are waiting to
bash some skull. In the meantime, the Gnolls have been chain-smoking and
chattering. When their rivals approach, they snap to attention, hastily
ditching their smokes and hoisting their squishy weapons.
When the combat finally erupts, all hell breaks loose. Each weapon is
assigned a point value — a player shouts it out when he strikes his target,
resulting in a cacophony of “Five! Five! Three! Four! Five! Two!” Spell
balls go whizzing through the air, and someone has erected a fire shield.
It’s up to the game master to keep track of the insanity.
“Josh, your head is getting very warm,” he admonishes a player who
ignores the fire shield. A stocky blond guy playing a Knoll barks and howls
and limps each time he’s hit. The entire conflict lasts less than two
Things are more subdued over at the barbarian encampment. There’s a
carcass impaled on rickety wooden fence, topped with what looks like a
plastic human skull. A trio of barbarians is gathered around a fire pit,
draped in animal skins and leather headdresses. For the most part, the
players take great care to invoke the true spirit and feeling of a
fantastical, mystical realm, but little anachronisms pop up throughout the
sprawling saga — evident when a barbarian lights up a Marlboro with a Bic.
Surrounding the camp are tepees made of different colored camping tarps;
a peek inside one reveals an air mattress and blue down comforter.
Visiting gamer Owen Matson expresses his disdain.
“You can’t be a barbarian and have an air mattress,” he says.