Josh, a tall 6’2”masculine man, with his cowboy hat on, drives his large pick-up truck, listening to some “good ol’ country music” to unwind on his way home from work. When Josh gets home, he packs up his guns, clothing and other gear for hunting the next day; he knows it’s going to be a late night and there won’t be enough time to do it all in the morning. He checks the Facebook group through his phone to see what tonight’s game setting is. He then puts on his three piece business suit and messages everyone he’s on his way. He picks up Alisha, who’s dressed very elegant in a lacy black dress, after that, another friend in jeans and a leather jacket. They are all ready to go to a L.A.R.P. game.
L.A.R.P, standing for Live-Action-Role-Play, is an umbrella term for a game that groups of people get together and play socially. They take on the role of a character, and act out scenarios together, reacting as that character would. Though the types of L.A.R.P have evolved in many forms, when I first thought of it, I thought of this stereotype of a few social outcasts dressed like wizards with two liters of Mountain Dew and chips. I assumed they would all sit around a table with a board and dice, playing Dungeons and Dragons, while irrationally taking the fantasy aspect of it too seriously. A comical reenactment of it can be found on YouTube.
When I brought this up to Josh, he laughed, “That’s what a lot of people think of our groups, but that is not true at all.” He also pointed out another common stereotype associated with L.A.R.P. that has everyone dressed as medieval knights, actually fighting using foam swords. If I wanted an example of that, I was told to check out the movie “Role Models”. I never did get around to watching it, but looking it up on YouTube, I got a pretty good idea.
Eventually the subject of bullying came up. Josh does a lot of masculine things, such as going to the gym and gun conventions. I asked him if he had ever been bullied due to playing this game. Josh responded honestly saying yes he has, but then explained that it’s easy to brush it off. The game easily brought comfort in that situation, considering that he has more friends than the people who bullied him, and on a Friday night he never has to sit at home, he always has a place to go hangout with a large group of people he gets along wit.
So far I’ve only mentioned two generic stereotypes of a L.A.R.P but this game is different. It has its roots as a table top game like Dungeons and Dragons, like the comical spoof I linked above, but in 1993, a publishing studio called By Night Studios came out with a new game. This new game is called Vampire: The Masquerade. To play, the players wouldn’t need dice or props of any kind; it’s entirely a social game. Alisha, a good friend of mine who had just started playing the game, showed me how it works. In her words “The character setup is the most complicated part, but after you get that all down, it’s just like acting” On their own time the players read over the game book as a guide to create a character. There is also a short .pdf for free on the By Night Studios website for new players showing how to start a character. Once finished, you end up with a character complete with a personality, physical traits, and a background. Now is when it gets interesting. A player then acts as this character, they could be someone completely different than who the player really is. For example, Josh plays a vampire business man, he dons a suit and plays it off like he is into business ventures with a pursuit of power. Alisha’s current character, on the other hand, is played as a once beautiful movie star, fated to be an ugly beast for eternity.
Once they finish with the complicated setup, they can play their characters out like in a play or movie, to the point that, at first glance, the game appears to be a group of people just talking. Their games are mostly held in public places, the two times I went to observe, one was held in the back of an Eastside bar in Milwaukee on a Friday night, and the other was held in Madison at reception hall. They use Facebook groups to keep up with news on game locations and times. This game is not just a local game, however, as mentioned, they had games in Madison and Milwaukee, but looking at the By Night Studios website, there’s a map showing every game location. This game is international, they are all across America, with some groups in Europe and even South America.
So really, what does a person who plays vampire L.A.R.P look like? In character, they range from modern and elegantly dressed, to a grungy looking streetwalker. The L.A.R.P players will often dress to play their part, but not in any sort of abstract, ‘obviously-a-costume’ type of outfit. As the most of them put it, the characters are trying to blend into society, not trying to look like some creepy person with a leather trench coat and a white Victorian pirate shirt.
Outside of the game, what does a L.A.R.P player look like? Really, there is no answer for that, the group is diverse, from race, sex, sexuality, social and financial status, they don’t have too much in common in these areas. Even age range is diverse, everyone of any age are welcome to play, as long as they are above 18 because the game’s story can get very R-rated.
When I brought up to Josh about how widespread this is, he explained he has been doing this style of L.A.R.P for years. In fact, Josh started playing this game down in Florida, from there he moved to Texas, and now he is here in Wisconsin. The unique thing is, with the one character he made, he was able to use it in all three of those locations because this game has a worldwide storyline. They all go by the same book. Though each area has their own in-game scenarios, it’s still the same game world, so it’s possible for any player in this game to continue playing no matter what state they are in. This is what starts to create this subculture’s community. When Josh first moved to Wisconsin, he really didn’t know anyone. After looking into the games in the area through By Night Studios, he found a group in the area. From that, he searched Facebook for the groups, and eventually made it to the group that he currently is with. Now he has made good friends with everyone in the group, to the point of his current roommate is someone he met in the group.
Alisha, who is a 5’3″ tall, 22 year old, has been a part of a few subcultures because of her job as analternative model. She had never really heard of the Vampire L.A.R.P. before just recently starting it, she’s only been in a part of this for three months. So, I thought she would give a good idea on how one gets into this game. Alisha’s wasn’t the normal way most players got into the game. She started by playing an actual video game similar to the L.A.R.P game, called Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. Liking the video game so much, she searched the net for similar games, only to discover that it was from the L.A.R.P game. Curious, and wanting to know more she researched more into it. At first the idea of L.A.R.P game made her a bit hesitant to join; she shared the same Dungeons and Dragons stigma of a L.A.R.P game as I did. Eventually though she became curious enough and went to her first game, and was surprised to see the large and diverse group. Milwaukee’s is one of the smaller games of maybe 30 people, but sometimes people from Madison come down to play here too. Madison’s games average 40 plus players, a Chicago gem she was told has 80-100 people at times. Once a year, the entire organization holds a convention and actually thousands of people come from all across the country to this convention, so it’s big.
Alisha was socially awkward at first, but that was common, some of the people who first start are shy, some, like Alisha, had never done any form of L.A.R.P before. When she came into the back room of the bar that the group had on reserve, everyone greeted her, and the evening’s assigned story teller, who is in charge of the game asked her if she was new or visiting from out of town. Learning Alisha was completely new, the story teller sat with for a while explaining how this game worked. The storyteller first explained how to create a character in the game, and then helped Alisha make the character’s stats on a sheet of paper. This was the only thing she needed in the game, no foam swords, cards or dice. The storyteller then explained his job was to float around in the game, solving disputes, playing parts of any extra characters and guiding combat. As the game goes, players just socialize with each other as if they are playing their character in a theatre, when two or more players have the need to do something physical in a scene, such as combat or interrogation, the solve it with rock-paper-scissors, then compare their stats on their character sheets. It may seem complicated, but when Alisha showed me, it was surprisingly simple.
As for the in-game story, it’s player driven. The story tellers come up with the initial situation, but the characters have full freedom to choose where things go from there. For example, when the players arrive, the story teller states that they are all in a mall at night and it’s haunted, the players could decide to investigate, lure other players to their character’s doom, or simply leave the mall and do something else. It’s a complete open-world style of game. The golden rule of this game is ‘it’s just a game’. If a character is attacked by another in game, they don’t draw that outside of the game. Friends often “betray each other” in-game, but have no hard feelings outside of it. The same goes for the reverse, if there is a dispute between players outside the game, they don’t bring it in the game. With that, if a player knows a weakness of another player, but learned it outside the game, the player has to act as if they didn’t know it yet.
After Alisha’s character was made and had the game roughly explained to her, she was cut loose to just join the game. Though shy, she realized this group is welcoming to anyone new, they had no problem going out of character to answer questions and explain anything. Even at points if the other person were in combat with her, the person would still stop to help her out. The rest of the evening went as a normal night with them goes; they all play serious for a while, but being at a bar, some of them get a little drunk and play the game in a light hearted way for some good laughs. At the end of the game, they all get in a circle; recap the events, and then vote on who played their characters the best. As they all gathered to the door, a lot of them carpooled together, some were couples and others had their significant other pick them up. When I asked what her first impression of the game was she said “Not going to lie, there are some of the stereotypical people you would associate with this kind of thing, but there are lots of different demographics. The sheer number of people in each game is impressive, and the most of them I would never assume do this kind of thing, they aren’t the typical person most people think of when you say the words ‘L.A.R.P group’. Either way, they’re all great people, and know how to have a good time.”
I asked Josh something a lot of people wonder about in these subcultures, “How do you deal with this and dating life?” Of course telling a woman he just met that he does L.A.R.P could be a red flag for her, but the way Josh explains it, when he and a woman start dating, he tells her about it and takes her with to see what actually happens. On some occasions, the women liked the game and actually joined them for a while, but with others, they didn’t care for it. If his girlfriend at the time didn’t like the game, it wouldn’t get hurt the relationship. Friday nights were just a night they would spent apart, she would go with her friends and he would go with his. He made a good argument that a lot of guys spend their time at home playing games like ‘Call of Duty’. He, on the other hand, went out with friends to a public place, was social and had fun. So really, is something like L.A.R.P. really that nerdy in comparison?