The Public Face of LARPing

Thank you for protecting us for bad words, cute peas. One of the LARPs I play is a medieval fantasy game in Claremont, New Hampshire. If, like most of the world, you haven't stopped in Claremont for a vacation, there's not much going on there besides a pretty good pizza joint that we lovingly call "the elemental plane of pizza and beer." It's apart from most civilization and the majority of the people who live there are a far cry from nerds. Because the site we LARP on is pretty small, we tend to crash at a nearby motel and hit up Dunkin Donuts in the morning before going back to game. It's not uncommon for me to do this in my full LARP gear, dressed in furs and leathers with tapered prosthetic ears and fake blood on my face. Unsurprisingly, questions happen.

One morning I was waiting in line for coffee and donuts when a man and his young son came in. This is the kind of guy that most nerds would be afraid of on pretense. He was tall, definitely on his way to go hunting or four-wheeling and he wore the kind of no-bullshit expression that looked exactly like the admonishing gaze every father figure gave me when I told them I was going to be an elf in the woods. After I placed my order, he and his son approached me, the latter clinging to his father's calf and observing me from a safe distance.

"You here for some kind of festival?" He asked and gave me an up-and-down look that, for once in my life, had nothing to do with my tits.

Daddy, why is the elf covered in blood?

This is the point in which most LARPers freeze in their tracks and go through the mental rolodex of answers to pick the one that is least likely to bring ridicule. It's for a play. We're going to a renaissance faire. We do live theatre. Behind me, I could hear my companions shuffling to avoid confrontation.

"No -- we LARP," I told him. "Live action role-play. It's sort of like Dungeons and Dragons, except instead of playing a game at a table, you're doing it in real life and everyone is playing along with you. You don't roll dice to see who wins -- you have to do it yourself."

The man's expression cleared. "Oh," he said. "Where is it? Can I come with my son?"

LARP is a Conversation

If you talk to North American LARPers, you'll find some common denominators. A lot of us came from less-than-ideal home lives and used gaming, reading, and theatre as an escape. Most of us were bullied at some point or were part of the "weird kids" at school. We're the kids who had drawing notepads filled with weird imaginary creatures or had or faces crammed in books while we created imaginary worlds. We weren't popular, and while we might be passionate, we had to be selective with who we talked to our passions about in order to spare ourselves the heartache.

While the first, and even second generation, of LARPers are adults now, many of us still have the knee-jerk reaction of reticence when approached about our hobby outside of the "safe zone" of nerds. Hell, even talking about LARPing in front of nerds can be intimidating. It's much easier to protect ourselves then it is to get out there and become vulnerable by presenting the thing we love to the world. The problem is that the face of LARP is changing. It's been on television, we're in movies, and lately we're not the butt of the joke any longer. But our habits -- the fear of rejection -- are not only passing on to the next generation of LARPers, it's stopping what began as a secret hobby from becoming normalized.

And when you think about it, why wouldn't people question the legitimacy of our hobby when we hesitate to talk about it? When you ask someone about something they are obviously, visibly passionate about -- hello, I am dressed like an elf -- and you see them pause or speak about it indirectly, the automatic reaction is that they are doing something that isn't normal. It's either wrong or weird or so bizarre that they are afraid of the rejection that they might get from bringing it up.

But the most amazing thing is that we aren't weird any more.


How to Talk About LARPing in One Easy Step

Step One: Tell them.

Talk about what you love. Can be it scary? Absolutely. You have no idea how that person is going to react and the fear of what-if's is always ripe in every nerd's mind. But for all we amp ourselves up with the possibilities, the responses you'll get in practice are usually much more mild and tame in comparison. Excitement is infectious. If you are excited about something, chances are that they'll see it and become curious in kind.

Did that father and his son ever come and see our game? No. He might someday, when his son is a little older and remembers seeing an elf at a gas station ordering coffee. But the next time someone off-handedly mentions "that LARPing thing" that they saw in a movie or see a bunch of people in costume, he won't think of the person who hesitated or was vague enough that he became concerned. He'll be able to recognize it as what it is, and as a thing that normal humans do. The goal of talking about LARPing isn't necessarily to bring in more people to game, although that's a nice perk. But if someone in a rugby pads or paintball gear can walk into a 7-11 and people can recognize and normalize their hobby, I'm pretty sure we can too.

So the next time you're walking through a Walmart buying six hour energy shots before game and someone asks you why you're wearing that outfit, forget about the what-if in the back of your mind. Forget about the jocks at school, the admonishing looks from parents and the bullies we grow up with. Be genuine, be excited, and be the advocate for the games and gamers that you love.