Residents of the Spondon area of Derby might have realised something strange was afoot during the August Bank Holiday weekend. One morning the local superstore was besieged by a horde of elves, goblins, werewolves and zombies, cheerfully clawing at the glass waiting for the shop to open. The store manager, apparently unfazed by this display of mock starvation, opened the store as usual.
This was the weekend that I experienced quite probably one of the most fun, surreal, and enthralling experiences of my life. No, it was not spent exploring the cultural history of Europe, or improving my mind and body through a prolonged series of deep meditative exercises. Instead, I was surrounded by warriors, rogues and sorcerers at The Gathering.
The Gathering is the Lorien Trust's epic live-role-play event of the year. The event witnessed two thousand live-action role-players descend on the privately owned Locko Park, for four days of role-playing, adventuring and the occasional party.
The extent of live-action role-play's popularity came to light after a freedom of information request was sent to Ministry of Transport requesting a list of all the websites that they had been searching. One of the websites on the resulting list was that of the Loren Trust. The resulting spike in traffic, as people investigated just who the Lorien Trust were and what live role-playing was about, crashed the Lorien Trust's website.
But what is Live-Action Role-Play, or LARP as it is more commonly known? One glib answer I received from several people I talked to that day was "cross-country pantomime". Like many jokes, there is an inherent element of truth running through it. LARP certainly contains elements of both pantomime and cross-country-running. However this answer does not fully encapsulate what live-action role-playing truly is.
After asking many people what live-action role-playing was, I came to realise no two answers were ever the same. LARP is a combination of several factors; blending theatre, improvisation, storytelling, community, escapism and action into a single pastime that people can enjoy in several different ways.
Adrian Tchaikovsky, author of the Shadows of the Apt series, highlights the escapist fun when he explains his definition of LARP: "It's an experience like no other. It fills the same need in me that stage acting used to (which I gave up shortly after I started LARPing) - the ability to physically step into someone else's shoes and live in their world - but it also gives me the chance to get involved in large battles, duels, trade negotiations, all sorts of stuff that normal life wouldn't provide."
Meanwhile "Evil" Gary Smith (don't worry it's just a nickname), a computer engineer, and also the Liaison Officer for the Derby Branch of Fools and Heroes, takes a more pragamatic approach to describing LARP: "LARPing is like being part of an amateur football team or dramatic society: you go out to enjoy yourself with friends. At its best I would say that LARP is a unique form of performance art, where each artist is also the audience for the other artists."
A lot of the appeal of live role-playing comes from the sense of immersion and exploring another world. We are all curious, and enjoy experiencing something unique. Naturally, imagination is required, but when you are in a field surrounded by tents and pavilions, populated by all manner of fantasy creatures, it is very easy to slip into that sense of wonder.
However as Case Support Worker William Moore (AKA Karisha of Vandar) explains, "You cannot turn up to a fantasy live role-play event, and expect to be fully immersed. You are immersed with the armour and the effort people put into their costumes and the prosthetics. But they make the effort, and you have to make the effort to use your imagination in the field, to be a different character to who you are, otherwise you don't tend to succeed. But you do learn how to do that, and it is very easy to get into; even easier if you have a group of friends coming, rather than coming on your own."
Gary Smith offers a different perspective from a refereeing point of view:
"When I run plot I get to see things I imagined, being developed and expanded by my fellow referees, and then watch the resulting story played out between the referees, the crew and the players. Each person adds their own contribution into the final tale, so it often ends up in places that you never expected at the beginning."
Costuming plays a key factor in live role-playing and the suspension of belief. The costumes worn by live-action role-players can vary from armour that has been bought from traders to the unique home-made costumes. However, just because something is home-made does not make it any less impressive. Some of the most stunning outfits I have seen were those that had been made by LARPers in their spare time.
A prime example of this was Rosalyn Crane (below), a call centre worker, who was impressively dressed as her character Haze of the Wild Hunt, daughter of Herne. "I took an old wedding dress and dressed it up by adding bits and bobs to it. Overall it took a couple of months", explains Rosalyn. "Most of that time was spent finding the accessories such as fake ivy and flowers".
Many of the smaller live-action role-play events carry a supply of spare weapons with them, allowing new players to try the first few sessions without having to spend an excessive amount.
However, just because the weapons are made from foam and latex, does not mean LARPing is a painless activity. Many LARPers I spoke to that day maintained that if they do not come home with at least one decent bruise, it was not a good event. Performing Arts student Luke Debenham elaborated further "The weapons are a carbon fibre-rod coated in foam and polystyrene, which are then shaped and formed, with a liquid latex applied as the colouring aspect to make it look like a regular sword. When it hits you, if you're putting loads of force into it, it's going to hurt, but there's a gentleman's agreement to pull your blows so you don't hurt people."
Given the emphasis on action in LARP, character-death is not an unheard of occurrence, although some systems are harsher than others. The threat of character-death exists all the time. As William Moore explained: "You could walk out of the tent, and a whole bunch of monsters - who are there to entertain you - could just come out and kill you!" However, character death is uncommon; as more often than not you are simply taken down, rather than your character being killed outright, and the abundance of healers ensures you are soon back in the game.
Becoming involved in LARPing, as Luke Deneham explains, is surprisingly easy: "It is not hard, as you just create a character off the top of your head, you play it out, and you see what happens. You can join a guild, or stay within your faction, and do whatever you want. It is your own personal experience. The fun thing about LARP is that two people can go to an event, and they can go off and have two completely different experiences based on what they've decided to do that day, so it is really easy to get people interested."
Whilst there is a stigma of LARP being solely a pastime for socially inept nerds, an image not helped by the film Role Models (about which many of the live-action role-players voiced their derision), the reality is far different. LARPing is undergoing continuing growth.
William Moore confessed to me: "At first I thought this hobby was a load of rubbish. The perception of a whole load of people running around shouting "I'm going to throw a lightning bolt at you and blow you up!", was not for me. But one of my mates took me into the field and said just use your imagination, go and have a lot of fun, and do what you want. So I did, and I started to realise it's really quite cool, and now I'm hooked. So anyone can do it."
There is a strong social bond that exists within the live-action role-play community, yet not an exclusive one. Almost everyone who has become involved in LARPing did so through a friend or relation, and in essence the community becomes one large family. The advent of the internet and social media has simply reinforced the relationships that already existed, allowing greater communication between different groups and players. Many veterans of live-action role-playing freely donate time to supporting the hobby. This input can take the form of providing make-up and creature design for the monsters, acting or simply assisting the referees at events.
As Home Care and Social Worker Mike Hilton, also known as Lorien Trust referee Firepit, explains: "As much as it is a competitive ideal when you are in character, all you have to do is come along on a Thursday night, or wait for a time-out on Monday, to see the change in people whose characters want to kill each other: when that final whistle goes you get to see bottles changing hands, you see shaking hands, hugs and drinks. That is where the community of this hobby comes in, and it is a fantastic thing to be a part of."
A multitude of different live-action role-play systems have been created across the country. These have developed from the initial rule-system into the more balanced and streamlined version that it is today, which covers a wide diversity of genres. These systems can vary from the medieval fantasy of the Lorien Trust to the post-apocalyptic Wasteland UK.
"The Lorien Trust has got better recently, but in a sense it has needed to" explains William Moore. "It needs to keep getting in customers who will pay, and you need to provide the best immersive experience. There is a game called Drachenfest, which has all these pre-built wooden sets for the different factions. They have built a tavern that you can walk into, order your drinks, and sit down at a table, which sounds immense fun. The level of role-play simulation and game management has become much bigger, as you have got so many people becoming involved in it."
Similarly, a Research Assistant I spoke to about LARP's ongoing evolution explains: "It is undeniable that LARPing has changed a lot. When I first started, there were probably only two or three big systems. There was this and there was Curious Pastimes which had a very similar game world to this one, and there was also Omega which was a lot smaller and had a lot less events per year. So this was the place to go for the big LARP, and there were lots of little LARP groups across the country, such as University clubs, coming along. The Gathering was always mish mash of lots of different worlds, as it was very much an open system back then. So you'd have Orcs over here, and Victorian airmen over there, so you'd find yourself thinking "What the hell's going on?". The Gathering was also slightly bigger then. Now there is a lot more choice. You've got companies like Profound Decisions, which was formed by the same people who made Omega. There also systems like Maelstrom, which raised the bar on costume standards and storytelling, and the way you can interact with the world. I think this has changed the way a lot of LARPing organisations have looked at things, as they now look at what others are doing. I think it has changed. There are a lot less people running around in lots of different things, such as pretending to be Klingons, just because they could. Now people more are more interested in creating a closed world, where an interactive story can gel together. There has been a big push to make it so that everything fits, such that a fay in one faction is the same sort of thing as one from another faction. So that everything is a lot more melded together, creating a more cohesive story."
The future of LARP is undeniably promising. The continuing creation of new LARP events proves that there remains a strong player demand for new and alternative settings. Similarly, new traders serving the live role-play community are still being founded, whilst existing traders adapt their stock in order to appeal to the burgeoning market.
Despite everything I witnessed at The Gathering, I always return to my first interview with a group of Militia. They maintained that the best way for me to understand LARPing, was to grab a sword, don a suit of armour, and get stuck in the middle of a fight. Although I politely declined the offer, in hindsight I wish I had said yes.
All photos used are by the author.