How LARP Works

An elf wields her bow in SOLAR, a Georgia LARP.
Image courtesy Jennie Breeden/Geebas on Parade

It's a Saturday afternoon. I'm standing in line at the grocery store, and something seems a little out of place. I realize that the teenager in front of me is wearing a long, green tabard with gold trim, and he has a wide, leather belt around his waist. He's buying lots of bottled water and Gatorade.

On my way out of the parking lot, I see him cross the street toward the park. There, two lines of similarly dressed combatants, some with brightly painted shields, face off against each other. They're armed with puffy, slightly oversized mock weapons that are covered in duct tape.


This sign marks the entrance to a town in one LARP world.
Image courtesy Jennie Breeden/Geebas on Parade

The people in the park are playing a live-action role playing game, or LARP. A LARP is a grown-up version of playing make-believe, and each LARP has its own rules and invented history. The game in the park is a battle game, one that focuses more on active combat than on an unfolding story.

To learn more about LARP, we interviewed Laurie Zolkosky, who has years of experience with live-action games and even started her own. In this article, you'll learn all about LARPing, including how the games work, why people play and what it takes to start a new game.

As Zolkosky describes it, a LARP is:

…a cross between a game and a form of theater. It's designing a character or persona to fit into an imaginary world. This, depending on the game, can involve something almost like a sport where you fight out the fights, or it can be just a lot of talk…but the gist of it is that someone creates this imaginary setting with its own rules and its own themes and sometimes its own ideology. [You] make a character who fits into that and play the character in that environment. It's a kind of total immersion, and it involves a whole lot of people accepting an alternate reality at once.

In other words, a LARP is an extended interaction between three things - a world, its rules and the people in it.

Campgrounds are a common LARP venue.
Image courtesy Jennie Breeden/Geebas on Parade

Long before the game begins, someone invents an imaginary world in which the action will take place. In the case of King's Gate, Zolkosky spent about a year and a half designing the game world, which is similar in some ways to the early European Renaissance. However, it's also a post-cataclysmic world filled with magic, monsters and non-human, intelligent races.

Players typically wear costumes that are appropriate for the world in which they're playing.
Image courtesy Jennie Breeden/Geebas on Parade

The process of designing a game world is lengthy because its creator has to address virtually everything that appears in the real world. For example, the world of King's Gate has an extensive recorded history as well as documented fighting styles, races and monsters. The description of the game world also includes what its people, technology and cultures are like. The people of King's Gate have a very basic understanding of astronomy and mathematics. There's no electricity, and the lower classes do not know how to read or write. The world's most complex weapons are crossbows and siege weapons. Players have access to pages of details about what the world they'll be playing in is like.

The next part of the equation is the game's rules. Game designers have the option of creating an entirely new rule system to address combat, magic, death and characters' skills. Or, they can use an existing rule system. For King's Gate, Zolkosky leased a rule system from Chimera Interactive.

The final component of a LARP is people. You can separate the people involved in a LARP into three categories:

A sea elf stands with her boffers.
Image courtesy Jennie Breeden/Geebas on Parade
  • The people who run the game: In some games, one person, usually called a game master (GM), leads the action. In larger games, a plot committee or several GMs work together to keep the game moving.
  • The people who are part of the game: These are non-player characters (NPCs). For example, an NPC could be a bartender who tells players about rumors of bandit attacks on the outskirts of town. The bandits themselves are also NPCs.
  • The people who play the game: These are player characters (PCs). Unlike an NPC, a PC can develop and learn new skills over the course of a campaign. In other words, the NPCs are part of the story, and the PCs experience and learn from that story.

This interaction between a world, its rules and its people takes place within the context of a game session or campaign. It's a lot like a story or a little piece of the world's history. A game session can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days, and a campaign can go on for months. During that time, players will congregate at the game site, often a campground or a park, on a regular schedule. While the game is in progress, the players pretend to be their characters - they walk, talk and act the way their characters would.


A Day in the LARP

Fighters face off in a boffer battle
Image courtesy Jennie Breeden/Geebas on Parade

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.


Swords, lances, daggers and even bows and arrows can be recreated as mock weapons called boffers.
Image courtesy Jennie Breeden/Geebas on Parade

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.

Players congregate outside the lodge at a LARP venue.
Image courtesy Jennie Breeden/Geebas on Parade

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.
Image courtesy Jennie Breeden/Geebas on Parade Another boffer battle.
Image courtesy Jennie Breeden/Geebas on Parade A LARP's rules have to cover what happens when a character dies.

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.


Who, Why and How

Most games take place at outdoor locations with lodges or other areas for players to congregate, prepare food and eat.
Image courtesy Jennie Breeden/Geebas on Parade

A variety of people, both male and female, like to LARP. "Most of them are very imaginative people," says Zolkosky. "Most of them have a taste for genre fiction, most are highly intelligent…and are in some sense usually a little bit different socially." Social differences often bring players together, and the LARP beings to provide a social group. "I've seen it bring a lot of people out of their shell," Zolkosky says. "I've seen introverts who have lived in their heads for much of their lives, when they find…a LARP, they discover that there are other people who have been living the same stories in their head. And they begin to come out of their shell and form a social circle based on the LARP."

Just as there are different styles of games, there are also different types of players. People like different game aspects or types depending on their interests and temperaments. Zolkosky explains:


There's a wide range of reasons why people play. Some people like to play it like a sport, or like a game, to win. Most people…who are drawn to LARP are very imaginative people, who already create stories and things in their minds, or write stories…I think they're drawn to it because it's a chance to work with other people on creating something like that. I think it fulfills fantasies for some people. The fantasy of living in a world with simple, black-and-white lines, or of just being a heroic figure… I hate to say the fantasy of being someone else; that sounds very trite. But I think for a lot of people it is a kind of fantasy or escapism. Live in a different world for a while, being someone else. A lot of people are drawn to it because they very much like the kind of literature that most LARPs are based on. They like fantasy, science fiction. They want to act it out.
LARPs can include a range of monsters, beasts and fantastic characters.
Image courtesy Jennie Breeden/Geebas on Parade

But even though players can have some basic traits in common, they can have different reasons for how they play and why they enjoy the game. Petter Bockman's essay "The Three Way Model," from "As Larp Grows Up: Theory and Methods in Larp," describes these types of people as the dramatist, the gamist, and the immersionist.

  • Dramatists like the in-game story or plot. To a dramatist, the narrative is the most important part of a LARP.
  • Gamists like to put together details and figure out mysteries or take part in battles.
  • Immersionists like to become their character. The experience of playing a role is central to an immersionist's enjoyment of the game.

Most players are a blend of these three types. "Different players like different things," says Zolkosky. "There are people who want to just fight all weekend and win a lot of fights. That's cool, too. A lot of this has to do with your style of what it is you're looking for in a game."

Some LARPs allow children to participate. Those that do often require signed permission slips and waivers from parents.
Image courtesy Jennie Breeden/Geebas on Parade

These types also apply to people who create and run LARPs. Dramatists like writing the stories. Gamists like taking care of the details and setting up puzzles for the players to discover. Immersionists like creating a completely real, absorbing world. In addition to creating a world and running sessions, staff must find venues for the games, take care of licenses and insurance where applicable and publicize the game, among other administrative tasks.

For these reasons, creating and running a game is a group effort, rather than the effort of a single person. Zolkosky explains:

No one can really get out and run a LARP alone. You need a team of good, solid, talented people that you can count on. Reliability is crucial there…probably as crucial as talent. But you need a team of people who share your vision…After that, it takes a lot of trust in the people around you…It takes a certain amount of logistical effort. You have to be able to get good sites to run your game, deal with the people you're renting those sites from. Organize your budget so that you can have decent props and costumes. And take good care of the money.

Then, once the game gets off the ground, the staff has to be prepared for the unexpected. "The number of things that can go wrong is insane," says Zolkosky." That's why part of the skill of doing this is being able to cope with anything that happens."


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • "As LARP Grows Up: Theory and Methods of LARP."
  • Common LARP Pitfalls and How to Claw Your Way Out of Them
  • Darkon Wargaming Club
  • How to Play in a LARP
  • How to Run a Live-Action Roleplaying Game
  • It Takes Two to Tango
  • Lukrain's Guide to Boffers
  • Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros, eds. "Beyond Role and Play: Tools, Toys and Theory for Harnessing the Imagination."
  • Running a LARP at a Convention: Logistics and Sanity
  • Setting the Stage for your Live-Action RPG
  • The DIY Guide to LRP