As a long time table top gamer, I’ve played a pretty wide gamut of games. I spent years in crunchy Pathfinder and 3rd edition D&D before my tastes in gaming changed and sent me on the hunt for games that give me the feels . My fun has shifted away from the joy of mechanical mastery to the joy of the story created through group improv and through making the most interesting choices, even when they aren’t in the best interest of my character. Enter the freeform/parlor larp: a confined one shot intended to be played in someone’s home or otherwise moderate space; frequently with little or no conflict resolution mechanics and focused on relationships in some sort of pressure cooker situation. Or y’know. That may just be the kind I’m really interested in.
Last night I played in my first ever larp. And I loved it.
There’s a stigma table top players have about larpers because we think that removing the table makes things more intimate and embarrassing and most of us remember that wild YouTube video from the early 2000s of some guy throwing ping pong balls and yelling “Lightning Bolt! Lightning Bolt!” over and over again. I never had a desire to move my mechanical mastery fun to a live action setting, but my interest began to perk up when my primary fun shifted to feels, story, and relationship drama. If what you enjoy are the more social aspects of gaming, then I can strongly recommend the experience — we’re already planning our next one.
What was different?
There’s no table (of course).
- There’s nothing to keep you from interacting directly in character with the other people who are playing, or from specifically not interacting with them as the case may be. You have the opportunity to be both more intimate and more removed. Your physicality in the space can reflect your play more. Two of our characters did not like each other, and every time they were in the same space they pointedly ignored the other, or even pushed past. We didn’t find out until later they were related!
- You don’t see everything else that’s happening, or hear it. I spent a lot of time meeting in small groups with other people because I had a secret — I was a werewolf. I didn’t want to hurt anyone but I also couldn’t just tell everyone…but moonrise was only ninety minutes in. When the game was over, we sat around chatting for quite a while and there were so many undercurrents besides my own at play, and there were even people that I didn’t end up having a single interaction with all night who also had wonderful story arcs of their own. Putting all the pieces of the story together to understand the whole picture can become more of an after the fact as you act only on the information that your character (and you!) has at the time. When you’re playing with a table, you know the story even of the scenes you’re not participating in, so this feels very different. Each experience is truly unique.
- Because you are physically interacting, you have the opportunity to include props much more prominently. They matter more because they help to suspend your disbelief and give you something physically representative to hold on to. They’re also a visual way to create shared narrative — especially useful when you may have missed some parts of a conversation because something different was happening for you! For example, I walked back in to the room to find a ritual circle laid out on the floor, created by a character I didn’t trust at all but whom I desperately wanted to succeed.
A stronger social contract and clear rules for interacting.
- It’s neat that a larp has the potential for more physical interaction, but because it does, the base line of what is acceptable needs to be clearly defined before play. It can be negotiated further on an out of character person by person basis, but how much contact you can make with someone before you pause to ask for consent should be clear. It might be none at all, or it might be hand to shoulder — but it should be known before you play. On an individual basis because of our in game relationship status, I negotiated more with specific people. Mostly so that I could end up holding lapels and crying about how I didn’t want to hurt anyone, while the moonrise drew ever closer.
- Safety is just as key, or even more so. Being physically in the space can make experiences more intense. Consent is a key conversation — consent about physical touch, consent about what happens to our character in the game (we played a New Magischola scenario, for example, and you get to decide what, if any, effect any given spell has on you). Larp is the source of the OK-check in that I am already using at my tabletop games because it gives us the ability to check in on each other during play — it can be hard to tell if you are upset or if your character is upset, for example — so being able to check in nonverbally is very important. Having a way to walk through the larp space invisibly to remove yourself for whatever reason is akin to the open door policy, although scaled up to manage the larger space scale of the game.
- We can explicitly play pretend together. You can say out of character that the necklace you’re holding is silver, even if in actuality it is not; we agree to see it that way together for the purposes of the narrative. After all, if it weren’t silver, it wouldn’t be useful to restrain a werewolf.
There were no dice.
- To play together, we’re agreeing that outside the limits we’ve put in place and the mechanics that give us agency in our own character’s actions, the things that other people say are true.
What was the same?
- It matters who you play with. It’s easier to engage when you have a level of trust with the people you’re interacting with — even if that just means a solid understanding that playing a relationship of some sort doesn’t leave the larp itself.
- It’s still group story telling and will benefit from the same kind of group improv tips  that your table will.
- You probably won’t be able to stop talking about it after a good one.
I honestly can’t believe it took me so long to try this since it’s right up my alley, and I’m excited to get the crew together and do more. Next time maybe ghost hunters or a murder mystery!
Do you larp or play tabletop RPGs exclusively? Do you mix them together?
We played A Wolf By Any Other Name, which is a New World Magischola and can be found here: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/209069/A-Wolf-By-Any-Other-Name