Larp : an introduction
"Larp" was originally an accronym for "Live-Action Roleplaying", although when you skip the acronomy it is more often called "Live roleplaying". As a name, it is used to describe an internationally extremely diverse group of cultural forms. These share the characteristics that some kind of improvised acting is implied, the improvisers portray specific characters during the event and if there is a non-participating "audience" (which is extremely rare), their presence bears no relevance for the improvisers. The actors of a larp, usually called "players" or "participants", are also it's audience - the people for whom the larp exists. Unlike improvised drama exercises and devising theatre, the improvisation which occurs during a larp is the end product.
Some larp events last half an hour, others last a full week, players will usually be costumed as their characters and the location where they play will usually bear some remniscence to the location where they are pretending to be. There will usually be one or several "organisers" or "producers" who deal with the logistics of the event, and in most cases a creative unit called (depending on local convention) the "organisers", "game masters", "larpwrights", "game designers", "game leaders" or "referees". Their roles and task may vary a lot, depending on the style of the larp, but in most cases there are creative leaders who have made choices as to where, when and who the players will pretend to be. Quite often the creative leaders also have an influence on what happens during the larp, for example by embedding possible stories in the characters and the scenario or by playing powerfull antagonists. Their control over the work is still nowhere near that of a theatre or movie director. Some groups use extensive systems of rules and regulations as part of their larps, others rely on improvisation alone.
Alternate names for larp are "live roleplaying", "interactive drama" and "indrama". "Roleplaying" ,"Interactive litterature" and "The interacting arts" are terms which include larp amongst other media. "Interactive murder mysteries" and "Minds eye theatre" are specialised, commercial, applications of larp. In this article, I use "interacting drama" as a synonym for "larp", except that "interacting drama" would include forms that have developed outside of the larp context and therefore usually are not called larp.
An example: larp in Norway and Sweden
In Norway and Sweden, the larp scenes this author is the most familiar with, a typical larp will last five days or a weekend. Players will have prepared weeks and months in advance, often working in groups with the players who will be closest to them during the event. Preparations usually include costume-making, the memorization of facts relevant to the larp and its contents and developing a character through discussion and drama exercise. larp genres tend to be historical epochs, or fantasy worlds as that of J.R.R. Tolkien, although many of the more high-profile events tend to avoid these genres, being set in stead in the future, in the contemporary world or in unusal meta-genres like "magical social realism" or "Shakespearean retro-futurism".
In Scandinavia, much attention is given to the scenery - it is not unusual for houses to be built for the purpose of a single larp. The scenery will need to be functional - a bed can actually be slept in, a table eaten on, a fireplace used for cooking, unlike the scenery of theatre or cinema which merely needs to convince the audience. The creative leaders (in scandinavia called "organisers", or with specialised tasks like "director", "scenographer", "character writer") will usually write shorter texts, typically from 2-6 pages, describing each character, and a longer text to describe the location and world or epoch which will form the larps context. It is also common for players to invent their own characters within a framework set by the organisers.
At the moment the larp begins, the organisers will relinquish most of their authority to shape the larp and leave it to the players who pretend to be their characters for the rest of the larp. Even sleeping is considered to be in-character, as a player may be woken up in the middle of the night and be expected to act not as herself but as her character. At a longer event - much time will be spent with the daily life of the character - eating, cooking, working - but the larp will usually take place in an unusual situation such as the days leading up to a major battle or a royal court immediately after the monarchs death.
As content goes, larps internationally tend to take place in environments that mirror genre fiction and film - fantasy, science fiction, crime, espionage, gothic horror etc. larp genres are as diverse as their litterary or cinematic counterparts - for example, as Sci-Fi larps go, there are larps which mirror space operas like "Star Trek", there are dystopias like "1984" and "Brave New World", and cyberpunks like "Neuromancer" and "Snow Crash". Fantasy larps, inspired by works like Tolkiens "Lord of the Rings" are probably the worlds most popular genre.
Non-genre or cross-genre larps are becoming more and more common, though still account for only a minority of events. "Living history" events, where attention is given to the exact recreation of daily life in a historical epoch, are the most common "non-genre" events, with scenarios ranging from ancient Rome to World War II and 50s boarding schools. Several larps take place in the contemporary world, and their styles range from hillarious commedy to larps with the same look, feel and impact as east European art moves.
A global phenomenon
As a kind of hobby, I have been compiling a list of all the countries where I have had first-hand reports that larp is practiced. As of today the list, which probably is fairly incomplete, is as follows:
Algeria, Australia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Czech republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Khazakstan, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Russia, Slovakia, South Africa, Sweden, Taiwan, Tunisia, Turkey, UK, USA.
These are only the countries about which I have been able to find first-hand information on the existence of a larp scene in a language I understand. It should be safe to assume that the list should be at least twice as long.
In its present form, larp has been around since the 1970's. The creation myth is that larp was a product of Englishmen and Americans who played the game "Dungeons and Dragons" and decided to stand up and act instead of using dice and paper. The group "Treasure Trap" in England were probably the first to practice larp, back in the mid-1970's, soon to be followed by counterparts in the US. From there, the idea spread to all corners of the world, and at least by the 1990's it had come to be considered an autonomous cultural form, no longer a variety of the fantasy roleplaying games which spawned it.
As creation myths go, this is not unprecise, but it leaves much to be wanted. The earliest larps came around almost immediately after "Dungeons & Dragons", indicating that the form might just as well have been invented independently. The American "interactive litterature" form, from the late 70s, appeared first at sci-fi conventions, consciously did not call itself "roleplaying" and chose content fairly differently than the roleplaying games of its day. While the "creation myth" sees larp as an anglo-american export, many national larp traditions have evolved independently, although later than the UK and US scenes. The Russian scene, for instance, dates back to the Soviet days and its pioneers had heard there was such a thing in the west as "roleplaying" but knew nothing about it. There may very well be more active larpers in Russia today, than there are in the U.S.
Typically, larp traditions in various countries have been born as a result of cross-fertilization between different media. In Sweden, the pioneers were groups who played roleplaying games and amateur theatre both. In Oslo, Norway, they were gamers, scouts and amateur filmmakers. Groups like the Society of Creative Anachronism, and Tolkien costume societies, predate larp by at least a decade and have often been an influence on beginning larp scenes.
The explosive growth of larp began in the 1990's, analogous with the Internet. While the 70s and 80s are certainly part of the forms history - the 1990's were when things really happened.
Larp is in most places practiced in the context of a youth movement, a hobby and/or a subculture. In some regions, larp is one of the activities associated with the "gaming" culture, together with board games, computer games and verbal roleplaying. In others, it is practiced as part of more mainstream movements such as scouting, amateur theatre, religious and political youth organisations. Most commonly, the medium is at the centre of a subculture devoted to the practice of larp, with names like "The Larpers" or "the Larp scene" attached to it. The challenges of proper costuming and equipment, the intense experience of participating and the immense task of organising and designing a larp, all lead to the practice becoming a passion which forms close bonds amongst its participants - who spend far more time preparing for or talking about larp than actually playing larp. Recent years have also seen larps appearing in the context of education, political protest, fine arts, and the theatre. While there have been larps held in prestigous art galleries, or comissioned by national theatres, these come from the traditions mentioned above. There is as yet no cultural institution devoted to larp, no place where larp is taught, and no academic discipline of larp, although some universities have dedicated PHD and master studies to larp research.
There are commercial larp products. "Minds Eye Theatre" and "Cthulhu live!" are larp versions of popular roleplaying game products. They are sold as rulebooks, books of advice, and scenarios (ready-to-play larps). Their being tied-in with the original products and their publishers fear of liability have led to these systems being extremely heavy on impractical rules, and many people allready familiar with an independent larp tradition scorn them as the plague. "Host your own murder mystery" books are also commercial larps, aimed for the market of burgeoise adults who seek to spice up their dinner parties with some roleplaying.
There are many small companies producing larps for the business market; such larps may be anything from educational team-training simulations to fun kick-off events, and the companies who produce them are usually fairly flexible in designing larps to meet the customers needs. Probably the most successfull of its kind, Danish Zentropa Interaction, is a sister company to Lars von Triers movie and TV production company Zentropa.
There is also, especially in the UK, several companies whose products are aimed at larpers - armories, latex weaponsmiths, costume-makers etc. For the unusually large larps (like Swedish Futuredrome and Nyteg, or English 'the Gathering') it is common for organisers to be full-time employees.
Some forms of larp might as well be called environmental theatre, and at least a couple of events labelled interactive theatre might be called larps, for example the currently popular "Tony and Tinas wedding". Commedia del'Arte, Theatre Sports, Augusto Boals "Forum Theatre" and Grotowskis early experiments in interactive theatre share a number of characteristics with larp. Verbal ("tabletop") roleplaying games like 'Dungeons & Dragons' and 'Vampire : the Masquerade' have quite a lot in common with larps, as do Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MPORGs), with the exception that these media usually do not require the body to be used except for dice-rolling or mouse-clicking. Similarities with larp tend to be stronger with the "independent" (or home-made, often non-commercial) MUDs and roleplaying games than with the commercial product. The term "freeform roleplaying" may sometimes mean exactly the same as "larp", sometimes be a form of verbal roleplaying without rules, and sometimes mean something else entirely, depending on the country where the term is used.
There are also historical analogies; the archaic greek theatre, the court picnic-plays of France and Sweden in the the 17th century and some tribal rituals still being practiced are similar enough to fall under the same definitions as larp.
At the level of theory, larp shares many of the problems and ambitions of interactive installation, net.art and interactive media in general. While the actual practices are fairly different, they share concerns like the creation of non-linear stories, the questions of authorship over such stories, and the ambitions of making artworks which involve the "audience". A classic interactive art text like Alexei Shulgins "Art, Power and Communication", could just as easily have been about larp.
Educational roleplaying, where students play for example the UNs security council or a group of teens in a peer-pressure scenario, is practically the same as larp although it's "feel" is usually very different since larps aim for for creativity ("entertainment", "artistic expression") rather than learning on the behalf of the players. The same can be said of therapeutical roleplaying and the kind of roleplaying which occurs within psychodrama. Historical re-enactment is usually not the same as larp, although in recent years historical re-enacters have often began playing their characters in addition to wearing their uniform. Historical re-creation, typically as practiced in the Society of Creative Anachronism (S.C.A.) is usually not considered to be larp, although this point is debatable depending on the larp definition chosen and the S.C.A. chapter discussed. "Living History" is both a form of re-enactment where attention is given to roleplaying and a form of larp where attention is given to historical accuracy.
With the exception of overlapping business interests, larp has absolutely nothing in common with single-player computer "roleplaying" games like Ultima or collectible card games like "Magic : the gathering".