LARPing is something I’d heard of, but never thought I’d have an opportunity to actually do. When I used to play Dungeons & Dragons I was told that it was something like that, but you get dressed up and whack each other with foam swords called “boffers” and run around in costume. That definitely sounded appealing to me. LARP stands for “Live Action Role Play”, and it sounded fun to completely immerse yourself in your character for a period of time instead of just sitting around a table rolling dice. Several years after I left my D&D group I had yet another brief encounter with LARPing. One of my favorite shows, Supernatural, had an episode where Charlie Bradbury, geeky hacker lesbian extraordinaire, was the Queen of her local LARP group. LARP and the Real Girl is one of my favorite episodes in the show’s 10-season run and it’s mainly because of Charlie and her badass geekery. Even Dean Winchester couldn’t resist dressing up and throwing himself into the game.
Despite these brief encounters, actually getting myself out to a LARP seemed completely beyond my reach. Where are all these LARP groups? How do you find people to play? Where do you start? I was pretty hopeless. To my surprise I happened upon one that happened monthly nearby, Dystopia Rising Hawaii. Oahu island is very small. Everything here is within reach, so what was I waiting for? The opportunity presented itself so I was off to spend a weekend fighting zombies and camping with about thirty other geeks in a fully immersive role playing experience. My time had come and I seized the chance immediately.
Dystopia Rising is international LARP game with groups across the United States and Canada. If after reading this you decide that yes, you too would like to spend a weekend camping with fellow geeks and fighting off zombies, I would very much appreciate you using my code as a referral: 16519. As this is definitely something I want to stick with, any XP points I get from your referrals would be greatly appreciated.
The basic premise of the game is that the world as we know it ended at least four generations back. Humans evolved into several “strains,” each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. There are also zombies, or “zed” as the in-game characters call them, which roam the earth and generally screw things up for us. But the zombies aren’t the only danger we have to face. In my game I experienced raiders, which frightened me to the point that I let out a genuine scream when one came at me with a machete-shaped boffer. When we went on our sailing mission on the last day, we also encountered jellyfish and a Kraken which, while less scream-inducing, still managed to hand our own asses to us several times. The mythology of the world is rich with details. My first weekend barely scratched the surface of what was possible, and I’m dying to go back to see what else this universe offers.
The mechanics of the game are very similar to D&D, but constructed more around your own creativity and skill rather than the luck of a die roll. You craft a character on paper first, and get scores based on your clothing and armor. Your costume construction definitely comes into play when creating a quality character. Your weapon also gets scored based on type and construction. When you head into battle, these numbers whittle away at each other until someone emerges victorious. Basically there’s a lot of tapping each other and shouting numbers and mentally ticking away at your own score until you realize “oh crap, I’m dying now.”
Instead of rolling dice to find out who wins the battle, it’s based on your own personal ability to tap your enemy with a boffer before they hit you. I got quite good at coming up from behind, tapping someone on the shoulder with my measly two point boffer, and running away before they had a chance to retaliate. It’s quite an intense work out. We played while Hurricane Kilo was skimming our island to the south, so the humidity and heat were oppressively high. I had sweat repeatedly drip into my eyes and when I got home I found that I had a heat rash.
The weather was truly the most miserable part of my experience, and I can’t wait until I can give it another go without the threat of dehydration lurking around every corner. The crappy weather did elevate the ambiance of one of our evening battles, though. Crowding in the center of town watching for raiders as lightning flashed all around was one of the most intense experiences of the weekend, but I’d gladly trade that in favor of not being on the verge of dehydration. But I digress. Skill is important, but you can craft your character to fit your own abilities. Everyone has a chance to be awesome.
Playing out the scenes that are created by the directors requires a certain amount of imagination. On the last day we went on a sailing mission down by the beach. The boats were two tarps laid on out the sand. The director of the scene walked by us splashing us with water, which caused us to be out of action for five seconds as though we’d been hit with a giant wave (but man, I almost enjoyed getting hit with that water because it was damn hot out there). Another person stood on the cliff above us and pelted us with little bags filled with bird seed. These represented “lightning strikes” and issued damage that pierced through our armor and struck at our body health. This knocked a good portion of us into “bleed out,” which meant we needed to be quickly healed by our fellow players on our boats before we died. You can be in bleed out for five minutes before you die, so if nobody is around to heal you, you are out of luck. When we were quickly healed we were brought up to two health. Each lightning strike dealt five damage, so another bolt and we were bleeding out again. It was quite a rough voyage! I think every person on our mission bled out at least once, if not four or five times.
The above photo shows that particular mission. I’m the one behind the man with the red bandana around his face. Yes, I have a huge sword to my neck, but that was just mugging for the photo. All the people on my ship were on my side (as far as I know… but I may learn otherwise as the game plays out). The real danger were the NPC (Non-Player Character) players who were playing jellyfish and the Kraken. Every player needs to take an NPC shift. This is how we have actual enemies to fight and how the directors progress the overall story (more on that in the next section). It’s unfortunate when someone who is crucial to a particular battle or plot point is on NPC shift when something goes down, but that’s just the nature of the game. You have to work with what you have and hope you survive whatever plot point the directors are about to throw at you. It’s for this reason I plan on pushing my character to be able to heal people quickly and efficiently, as well as upping my armor and health so that I don’t go down so damn often in the middle of battle. I went into bleed out five times this weekend and, man, I felt useless. But it can only get better from here, right? My character has only just begun, and I’m going to make her as awesome as I can.
The story is crafted by the “directors.” Several people have taken on the role of leading the overall arc or specific scenes, but how we choose to confront these situations is entirely in the hands of the players. On my NPC shift I played a mercenary who escorted ‘Obama’ into the camp for negotiations. The choice to name this character Obama is rooted in the fact that our current president has ties to our state, so it’d make sense that after many generations after the apocalypse his lineage may have some sort of power over a portion of the island. It’s these little tidbits that make the story tie into our location and feel oh so very ‘real.’ The director clearly has an idea for Obama and his clan, but how the townspeople react are completely out of his control. When I was left behind in the town after Obama had been escorted back to his home, a Red Star guard named Cedric (more on him later) threatened to chop off Obama’s head. Wow! Okay then. That’s that. We’ll see how that story plays out because it’s pretty much up to the players to decide what to do.
I am fortunate enough that I came into the game during a major change in the plot. For very real world reasons, the players have had to switch campsites and they’ve actually written the move into the story. The previous town, Mahalo, has been completely destroyed and on my first night we arrived in a new area, which we subsequently named Bastion (which apparently makes us all ‘Bastards.’) This area is new to all of us, so we all get to build it up together. My own story for my character is severely lacking, though, and I’m going to have to put some serious thought into her origins before the next game. Which I guess segues us to characters…
My character is weak as hell not only in armor and weapons rating, but in backstory and general direction and purpose as well. But that’s okay. The other players have been more than keen on helping me develop her and I think she’ll turn into something halfway decent. Misha (oh my yes, I did name her after that actor from that show) is a Nation of Accensor. We are basically religious fanatics who hid away during the fall of humanity and immersed ourselves in our faith. I belong to the Church of the Telling Visions. We basically worship ‘The Signal,’ or TV broadcasts from before this whole apocalypse thing went down. If you know me, you know this was tailor-made for my tastes. I basically worship TV already, so I just have to mentally push myself past an apocalypse for a few generations and bam, it’s perfect. The rest of my character, however, has room for improvement. But the people around me had very well-developed and engaging characters. Many of them provoked genuine emotion from me, such as Elijah. Oh man, let me tell you about Elijah…
Elijah is the character in the game I had the strongest emotional reaction to. He’s ‘Full Dead,’ which is basically an intelligent zombie dressed in refined attire. They’re dead, but they aren’t mindless killing machines and can hold a reasonable conversation if they so choose. He moved about the camp silently, observing people from just inches behind them without saying a word, often startling them when they finally noticed he was there. When he did make a noise, it was in a hushed tone. He only ever said oddly prophetic and entirely creepy things directly into your ear. It was so different from all the other characters who seemed to be playing an active role in how things played out. He was observing eerily from the shadows and I couldn’t help but be intrigued.
The next day I asked some of my fellow players who that was and was surprised to learn it was the same guy who played Cedric, the Red Star guard who threatened to chop of Obama’s head the day before. Yes, the player had some make up on, but it wasn’t too terribly dramatic. But the player changed everything about himself between these two characters. One was mysterious, quiet, and eerily refined, while the other was loud, violent, and extraordinarily rough around the edges. This is the level of roleplay I hope to achieve someday. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to immerse myself that much, but it’s a good bar to set for myself.
There were so many great characters though, some who had clear benefits for the town. Pepper the cook, for example, was not only an in-game cook, but made food for the players as well. We elected town leaders, have a town guard, and even several priests (a title I hope to obtain someday and, hopefully, will learn next month from another Nation of Accensor Priest). There are tinkerers who help repair armor and construct things. There are doctors who help heal. There are entertainers who help us pass the time. It’s a working community built out of individuals who crafted characters based on their own desires and ideas. Yet somehow all of these individuals form an actual functioning little town and I’m blown away at how well it works together.
If you want to play in a LARP, find one and do it. Don’t sit back and think it’s something you’ll never be able to do. And if you choose Dystopia Rising, remember: 16519! I am determined to make my character as awesome as she can be and using me as a referral can help further that goal. But no matter what game you choose, give it your all. Craft that costume, create that character, and go immerse yourself in a completely different world. Maybe it won’t be your thing, but you won’t know until you try. Get in touch with your inner Charlie Bradbury, become that warrior or doctor or holy figure you’ve always wanted to be, and get LARPing.
Author: Angel Wilson
Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. She earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. She’s contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. She’s written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. She identifies as queer.
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