Exactly how a campaign plays out depends on the type of LARP that people are playing. There are three primary ways in which games unfold.
The Battle Game
Two groups of opponents face each other on a battlefield. They're dressed in period clothing, including armor, and armed with padded, duct-tape covered weapons called boffers. Someone gives a signal, and the battle begins – the combatants rush at each other, attacking with their boffers until a clear winner emerges. Sometimes, the battle ends when members of only one team are left standing. This is a live-combat or battle game. Dagorhir is a battle game based on J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. Another battle game, Darkon, has been the subject of an award-winning documentary.
The Theatrical Game
A group of people congregate in a room, and a storyteller distributes a card describing a character to each of them. The storyteller describes a scene, and the players use the information from their character cards to decide how to respond to the scenario. They act out their characters' decisions, but they don't engage in any kind of combat. If there's a need to fight, they play "rock, paper, scissors," pull cards from a deck, roll dice or use some other method to determine the outcome. This is a theatrical or non-combat game. White Wolf's "Mind's Eye Theater" games are theatrical LARPs.
The Role-playing Game
Many people arrive at a campground, where they'll be staying for the weekend. These players have either created their own characters and submitted them to a GM or received cards describing the characters they will play. The GM or NPCs give characters information about what's happening in the story and players act out. For example, an NPC might tell the players that a powerful vampire has been terrorizing the village. The players, based on their characters' skills and abilities, decide how to find and attack the vampire, using boffers to simulate the battle. This is a role-playing or role-playing combat game. King's Gate falls into this category. The most well-known role-playing combat game is called NERO.
Regardless of which style the game follows, its rule system provides the framework for all of the GM, PC and NPC decisions. Rules cover all the details of game play, including:
- Combat: LARPs that include boffer battles have rules that govern weapon construction, armor representation, fair fighting and the calculation of armor and health points. In most combat LARPs, combatants must call their damage, or announce how much damage they inflict with each hit.
- Magic: Many games are set in fantasy world, making magic an integral part of game play. To cast a spell, players often have to recite an incantation, perform a gesture and hit their target with a physical representation of the spell, like a beanbag or a pouch filled with birdseed. If the player fails at any of these steps, the spell fails. Rules specify which spells a character can learn, the spells' effects and how often the character can cast them.
- Skills: A character's skills can be hard skills, which the player actually knows how to do. Or, they can be soft skills, which the game system represents through other methods. For example, cooking as a hard skill would involve preparing real food. As a soft skill, cooking would involve rolling dice, drawing a card or performing another action to symbolize food preparation. Sometimes, hard skills represent or augment soft skills. In many games, the hard skill of throwing is integral to the soft skill of using magic.
- Death: In games that involve combat – whether with boffer weapons or "rock, paper, scissors" – characters can be killed in battle. Most games have provisions for resurrecting characters. In some, a PC or NPC must use a spell to resurrect the character. In others, the player must wait in a time-out area before returning to play. Some games set limits on the number of times a character can be resurrected, and after reaching that limit the player must start a new character.
Most games have a system for keeping track of all this information. A character's history, skills and attributes are written on a character sheet. In many games, players carry a life ring, a key ring that holds disposable tags that represent spells, hit points, armor points and abilities. The ring may also include a life tag that simply indicates whether a character is alive or dead. When characters cast spells or take damage, they remove the corresponding tags from their rings. Some battle games also have scorekeepers whose only role is to keep track of players' damage and armor.
We'll look at who likes to LARP and why in the next section.