Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Interview - Aaron and Ryan of the LARP Census

Please welcome Aaron Vanek and Ryan Paddy of the LARP Census.

Live Action Role-Playing is huge across the world, and these guys have set up a website in an attempt to get an idea of the scale of the hobby. What is this all about? Well, let me share with you the first two questions on the website's FAQ:

What is larp?

Larp or LARP is an acronym that stands for Live Action Role Playing. Some people think of larp as a sport, some as a hobby, some as a medium of expression, and some as an art form.

Larp means you portray a character—who may be a mindless zombie or who may be very close to the real you—with other people doing the same. The overall experience is designed and guided by someone or a group who may or may not also portray characters during the event. There is rarely a detailed script to follow like staged theater. This improv acting is performed for personal satisfaction and the fulfillment of your fellow role-players; larp is not for a passive audience that has no agency in the narrative.

Larp goes by many names, and instances of it have appeared throughout global history. It appears to be in a global resurgence, with larp communities in many different countries.

Why a global larp census?

Although some countries have rough estimates of their larp population, there has not been a comprehensive global census taken of self-identifying larpers on this scale. We really want to count everyone who larps, has larped, and wants to larp.

The information we acquire will be publicly shared so scholars can analyze the data and make conclusions that will, hopefully, increase both the quantity and quality of larps around the globe.


Before we talk about the LARP Census, tell us something about your own gaming histories.

Aaron Vanek - A friend of my mom's gave me the white box (three tan books) version of Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid. I made a few characters but couldn't find anyone to play with, nor did I really understand the rules. I recall trying to buy the Chainmail expansion from a game store a few blocks from home. Instead I got the D&D Basic Set (the purple 1981 version), and found one friend to play with. One player slowly grew to well over a dozen by high school. This group enjoyed playing games, mostly RPG's, almost every weekend; Traveller, Top Secret, Champions, and Call of Cthulhu were the usual fare, but we tried a lot (anyone remember Fringeworthy or Stalking the Night Fantastic?). We also played board games (Arkham Horror 1st Ed., Talisman, etc.), card games (Nuclear War, Illuminati), and video games (Infocom on the C-64, Star Saga, Bard's Tale, Wasteland, etc.).

I published a quick and dirty system for chases in games in the revamped Space Gamer/Fantasy Gamer magazine (Red Rahm, editor), and then nothing until the 21st century when a few of my Call of Cthulhu scenarios were published by Chaosium and Pegasus Spiele.

I've worked for two defunct video game companies, and in 2012 started my own 501c3 nonprofit company, Seekers Unlimited, that makes educational larps.

I've been playing games of one kind or another for a little more than 30 years. There's more info and credits, if anyone cares, on my website.

Ryan Paddy - My older brother played tabletop roleplaying games, and I grew up hanging around and listening in to all kinds of games. Reading his game books got me excited from an early age, but it wasn't until teenage years that I met a bunch of friends who liked it too. We took turns running a lot of different games. MERP, Call of Cthulhu, Paranoia and Harn all have special places as part of my growing up experience.

We wrote our own systems and settings to play among ourselves too. I made a game called Pakewaitara ("Legends") based on traditional Maori stories. These ancient tales were recorded from oral tradition back in the 1800s during colonial times here in New Zealand, and the heroes and villains often have amazing powers over their bodies, nature and the spirit world, transforming themselves into animals and engaging in epic journeys and battles. Perfect fodder for a roleplaying game, and something with special meaning where I live.

What was the attraction to LARP?

AV - For me, it was getting off my ass and away from the table. Where I grew up there was a creek and runoff passageway next to the train tracks near my apartment. All the kids called it "Mummy's Cave." Paralleling the tracks were giant eucalyptus trees, like temple columns. It was a natural setting for larping if you ignored the cars and trains. I made some very simple larp scenarios set there, but never had enough smarts, resources, or friends to make them "official." it was just play pretend with a fantasy theme and hit points. Except that I now consider play pretend to be live action role playing.

At a local game convention I attended through middle and high school, the IFGS (International Fantasy Gaming Society) ran a few larp scenarios, which I enjoyed. The driving attraction was relying on my real skills instead of random dice rolls.

In college I larped almost once a month through Enigma, UCLA's science fiction, fantasy, horror and gaming club. The attraction still hasn't gone away. I love engaging all five of my senses as well as exercising my physical, mental, and emotional being. I never got that from traditional table games, at least not while I was growing up. I think gaming has matured considerably since my early days. Nowadays I am excited to play and even try to combine the progressive trends in indie RPGs, indie video games, board games, card games, and larps. We live during a golden gaming renaissance that enriches all types, styles, genres, and experiences.

RP - I also heard about larp through my older brother. He had a school friend who was playing in a "widegaming" group - that's what we called larp back then. My brother's friend came over with some really rudimentary foam weaopns (this was around 1988), and when we fought with them something clicked in my mind. Those weapons made me instantly imagine how we could bring to life fantasy worlds in a much more immediate and interactive way, telling stories in real time and staying fully in character rather than popping out of character to resolve conflicts like with tabletop.

After that, alongside tabletop RPGs I started running larps with some school friends. Where I grew up on the North Shore of Auckland is blessed with lots of small forested parks, and we ran classic fantasy quests through them. It started out with a handful of people, but quickly grew to 40 or so kids, a rulebook we wrote, and regular adventures. It was all pretty basic looking back, but a lot of good silly fun was had and we loved it at the time. We also ran some non-fantasy games, usually horror scenarios set in the modern day with pre-written characters.

As teens we once constructed an elaborate cardboard maze in the crawlspace under my parent's house, only a couple of feet high. It was incredibly claustrophobic crawling through there with just a flashlight. We'd already has some creepy scenes with seances and an undead house invasion before the players found it, so they were pretty freaked out. One player was armed with an unloaded airsoft pistol, the rule was that if it was "fired" it always hit the target. Deep in the maze under the house, he encountered a madwoman who came flailing and screaming at him down the tunnel like something out of Aliens. He fired wildly at her, then panicked and crawled backwards all the way back out (it was that tight), then when he got out he mistook his friends waiting outside for more enemies and shot them too! Nowadays that player works in a tactical unit in the police. True story!

The last time I LARPed was fifteen years ago, and I spent my time monstering and having great fun. This meant hiding in bushes, hitting people and shouting out my damage score. Has LARP changed much since those early days?

AV - No and yes. No, it hasn't changed at all. What you describe is still the prevalent style of live action role playing, especially in Europe, America, and lands down under.

But yes, it has changed, deeply, radically, but only in limited areas. There are larps used for business and military training, education, or to evoke social change. Some larps have almost no rules and deal with deeply emotional issues. Some larps have only two or three players, no GM, held in a private, tiny room, while other larps have hundreds or thousands of players and are set on a battleship or in a medieval castle. And there is quite a lot in between, too. It's not all fantasy, either: there are science fiction larps, horror larps, post-apocalypse larps, historical larps, dramatic larps, comedy larps, and experimental larps. Some run for years, some less than an hour.

I've said this many times before, but I feel that fantasy foam combat campaigns are to larp what super heroes are to comic books: colorful, popular, and too often mistaken as the default form of larp. That's just one type of larp content; it's not what live action role playing is. I personally think of larp as an ancient art form--there are examples of larps from before, long before, D&D was a gleam in Gary Gygax's eye. Some regard larp as a hobby or, occasionally, a sport. We're all correct.

RP - Every larp is so different. Even back in 2000 when you last larped Jonathan, there was already a massive diversity of larps happening beyond what you experienced, and it's only grown since then. It's never even been all foam weapons and adventure games, right from the first larps in the early 1980s there were games using alternative mechanics like rock-paper-scissors, often indoor games which were about intrigue and politics between a group of pre-written player characters rather than adventuring or factional conflicts. In Australia, the first recorded larp (although they called it a "freeform RPG") was a live game of Traveller played at a convention, where the convention rooms represented a starship and the players walked around and talked in character. They used dice and had lot of GMs to referee, but as soon as you get up and embody your character and represent the setting in real space, you've crossed the very fuzzy line from tabletop to larp. A lot of early larp origin stories are like that, basically tabletop games that went a bit feral and turned into something else - a larp.

The major change of the last decade has been a recognition of how larp can be used not only for entertainment but also for education, emotional catharsis, political activism, and so much more. The immediacy of larp makes it a very powerful and personal medium. The international larp scene has also become increasingly connected through technology. This started as early as 1994 when I first got onto newsgroups and talked to larpers in the UK and the US, but technology like Facebook now means that you don't have to go looking for groups or forums, international larpers come find you.

I'm also starting to see a lot more professional involvement in larp. Making and retailing costumes and props is a growing industry, and has attracted the attention of some big players including manufacturers for licenses like Age of Conan and The Hobbit. There are a lot of professional movie prop makers & costumers getting into supplying larp too. Movie work is often uncertain for these folks, so they can use larp sales to fill the gaps between productions. As a result there's an explosion of really high-quality gear coming out, and there's a virtuous circle where all the pretty gear attracts more new larpers, and that growing market in turn attracts more industry to these customers. We're also starting to see things like electronics products purpose-built for larp.

Tell us more about the LARP census - what's it all about?

AV - The Larp Census is a non-profit project that Ryan Paddy and I developed over the past two years to count every larper on Earth. No small task, that, and it's doomed to failure. Still, we want to count as many as possible and find out more about them: where are they, how old are they, how many larps have they participated in, why do they larp, do they make things for larp, etc.

By gathering this information and then releasing it freely to anyone via a Creative Commons license, we hope the quantity and quality of larps everywhere will increase. We'll have hard figures about who is doing this art-hobby-sport, and what is working and what might not be working. Ideally, larpers around the world will realize that they aren't alone, that larp is a global phenomenon. Unlike tabletop RPGs that can point to D&D as their origin, there wasn't really--and still isn't--a single larp game or rule set from whence everything else sprang, at least not globally. We hope to show people that there's more going on here than what your local larp is doing.

RP - The Larp Census is about curiosity. Or call it science, perhaps. Who is larping? Where are we? How do we do it, how many of us are there, and what do we enjoy most about it? Nobody knows, and we want to find out. We've already started looking at the data collected so far, and every single statistic has a surprising and interesting story to tell.

Not only that, but now is the right time for a census. Because larp is on the verge of a big step-change. If you've been to any big pop-culture conventions, you'll know that there's a massive convergence of costuming, gaming and fandom going on. More and more people want to dress up and get fully immersed. So what activity lets you dress up, tell a story and play a game all at once? Larp combines all these things better than any other medium.

We're seeing the emergence of a new breed of larps with amazing production values and huge general appeal. It's happening at the same time as the market for this kind of game is reaching maturity. That market and those games are about to meet, and there's going to be quite an explosion. Now is the time to document the "before" picture, while larp is still young and mostly amateur.

What do you hope to achieve with the census? What will it be used for?

RP - The Larp Census is really an absurdly ambitious project. I don't know of anything else like it, trying to document an activity across the entire globe. If nothing else we've demonstrated that we have the technology to survey the whole world about a niche thing they love, that's pretty cool in itself! At launch we had thousands of responses flooding in per day, which was quite a rush. Social media has played a big part, giving the project a viral boost.

Fundamentally we want larpers, organisers and suppliers to know where, how and why people are larping, so that more and better games can be created and played.

Also, we want to help along the process of bringing the worldwide larping community together, breaking down barriers and building new international collaborations. We're already seeing that happen from the early census results we've published so far, they have started conversations between regional larp communities and made people aware of all the unexpected countries where larp is being played.

LARP is still big across the world. What do you see in it's future? 

AV - I think, and hope, that larp will be recognized as a valid art form--it already is in some countries. Maybe larp will be understood as "structured experiences" that can create very profound changes in not just individual lives, but societies as well.

Or larp is just a fad that will die out in a few years. But I doubt that.

RP - We're going to see larp go commercial and mainstream in our lifetimes, with massive games and incredible production values. There are some larps with thousands of players at events now, but the entertainment industry is only beginning to catch on to this growing market. In a world where media piracy is the new norm, there is special value in a medium like larp that can only be experienced physically. Players engage and invest in larps over a long period of time, often buying multiple in-character wardrobes as well as paying for events. We're already seeing companies like Disney invest in larp-like in-character interactive games at their amusement parks. Strange as it might sound, larp is a bandwagon that a lot of companies are about to jump on.

The real question is: will any of the new breed of big commercial larps be any good? Just as successful blockbuster movies can have terrible scripts and acting, and huge MMOs can lean on pointless but addictive grinding, we may see larps emerge that are fine-tuned to extract money without having either the artistic merit or the strong aspect of personal creativity from the players that less commercialised efforts allow for. I imagine we'll some big commerical larps that are high on glitz and short on substance, but I also hope we'll see some quality mega-larps too, drawing on the experience of larp organisers to help design games that are spectacular and also have depth.