Saturday, September 9, 2017

The First (And Worst) LARP I Ever Attended

We've all had bad games. I've had my share, and a few of them have wound up on this blog before. However, I have never been to a game that left as bad a taste in my mouth as the first LARP I ever attended. And, while I'm not going to name names and point fingers, I will relate my experience. My hope is that folks who read this one will walk away with a list of questions to ask, and that staff members for LARPs will have a whole new set of red flags to avoid.

So, let's get started, shall we?

After this one, it's a miracle I ever LARPed again.

The First (And Worst) LARP I Ever Attended

So, in the long ago and far away, I was working a temp gig at Wal-Mart over the summer. I was taking a break from college, and I'd only been gaming seriously for a little over a year. I'd made a friend at work, and on our short breaks we'd swap gaming stories. After I'd known him a few weeks, he invited me to an upcoming LARP. At the time I'd never heard of LARPing, but once I got the sales pitch I was curious. I was a fan of RP-heavy games, and adding in costuming and real-time combat struck me as a unique opportunity.

A few days before the game, my friend drove me out to the site, and introduced me to the staff while they were getting things ready. I was given essentially the same spiel about the game's broad strokes, as well as a basic run-down on character creation rules. I was shown how combat worked (in that I was hit about the shoulders with a boffer sword while I was unarmed, and that was about it), and when I asked if there was anything else I should know I was told no, not really. There was apparently an event for the next game, and I was assured it would be a good opportunity to bring in a new character.

So, tentatively excited, I dug through my closet to assemble a costume. As to my character concept, I went as basic as possible. Scarred mercenary for hire, my character was a swordsman named Alric, known in his homeland as The Mad. He'd left for unspecified reasons, and was now seeking work and security among a new community.

I figured keeping it basic would help me avoid problems.

When I First Noticed Things Going Wrong

I showed up early to game site, paid my fee, and tracked down the storyteller to make sure there weren't any last-minute things I should know. I didn't want to be "that guy" who dragged down the game because of his newness. I was told my concept was solid, no problems with my character, but the storyteller wanted to have me arrive with another PC who was an established guard captain, and thus I'd have instant bona fides and introduction. Problem was, that player wasn't on site yet, and likely wouldn't be for a few hours. So, to kill time, the ST suggested I play some monsters.

When I tried to politely demur, I was informed this wasn't optional. Every player had to NPC a certain number of battles every game, unless they were on staff. Not an uncommon practice in a LARP as I found out over the years, but it definitely sounded like something that fell under the "things I should have been told before I showed up" question I'd asked earlier. I shrugged, and decided to be a good sport. If nothing else, it would help me get a feel for combat, and give me something to do.

That was when the next hiccough came up. I'd asked my friend, and the storyteller, if I would need to bring my own weapon. As I wasn't crafty, and had never done this before, I didn't know how much time and resources I wanted to invest. I had been told no, for the first game or two I could use a loaner weapon from the staff. Said conversation had apparently been forgotten, though I was begrudgingly given a weapon for my time as a monster. It was after my time as a goblin, an orc, and a dead body during a scene with a dragon, that I was told I had to play the role of a commoner NPC whenever I was walking though the main site, as my actual PC had not yet been cleared to show up. Again, I just nodded, because there were a bunch of players, and I didn't want to make too many waves. I was, however, able to see the end of my patience not all that far from where I was standing.

Man, it would be nice to actually play this damn game sometime today.
After about four or five hours after official game start, I finally walked up to the storyteller and asked when I was going to be allowed to actually start playing. I didn't necessarily begrudge being an NPC, but I'd done my volunteer time, paid my fee, and I'd like to actually play the character I'd had approved. The ST told me that it turned out the player they wanted to introduce me wasn't going to show up till the second day of the game, so sure, it was probably safe for me to actually show up in-character.

When I asked what cover story I should give, and who I was actually looking for (I assumed the in-character reason was that I was meeting the other PC in this town, and happened to show up early), the ST just shrugged, and flapped a hand at me. I'd been NPCing for a few hours, I should know all I needed to.

Dismissed, but given permission to actually start playing, I grabbed up the parts of my costume I'd left off for NPC purposes, and strode off-site to don them. I took a moment or three to get into character, walked on-site... and I managed to talk to about three people in-character before it started raining. The sort of rain that, if you hadn't prepared for it, you were going to have serious makeup and costuming problems before long. So, pretty much the whole venue crawled inside their personal spaces, and made small-talk while we waited for the skies to clear.

They did, in time, but that first day did not improve. I didn't wait around for a second day to see if it would be better.

Some Other Red Flags

There were several, other details that I couldn't work smoothly into the above account of the day's events, so I thought I'd list them here.

Just a few things to keep an eye on.
First and foremost, this was not an 18 and over game. Call me insensitive to the needs of parents and younger players, but I felt that should have been mentioned. Particularly since there were several 9-12 year olds there who were all staff members' kids, and thus they had the unwritten special power of, "throw a tantrum," in order to make a plot, combat, etc. go the way they wanted to. While I was fortunate not to have been directly involved with that, just witnessing it from afar was enough to make me seriously doubt this was a game I needed to be part of.

Secondly, this game had a rather unorthodox policy when it came to OOC talk. A policy I was informed of when I was out on a trail, talking to my friend about my misgivings. One of the ST staff, who was walking the other way, glared at me, and demanded I come with him. I was then told to get into a literal set of stocks that was set up on the edge of the game site. It wasn't so well-constructed I couldn't have just popped my head out, so I went along with it. I was told to stay there for five minutes, and then the staff member walked off. The head ST came along a few minutes later, at which point I asked for an explanation of what kind of practical joke this was. I was told I had been, "drunk and disorderly," which was their code for OOC talking on-site. A novel idea, sure, but one I had not been informed of, and which I felt was rather extreme for a new player who had no idea what was really going on, and who had not been informed that he'd broken any rules since I'd thought the trail was far enough away as to be considered out-of-bounds.

In addition to those big ones, there were a score of little niggles that started weighing on me as a new player. It seemed that everyone on the ST staff had personal characters they were playing, and that these characters always seemed to have some strange foreknowledge of what the plots they were playing through would require. There was no explanation given to me of what the site was, where the boundaries were, or what hand gestures were to be used for things like speaking another language, or whether a staff member was present as a staff member, or as their PC. Add in the dozens of traditions and unspoken rules, and it really felt like I'd immigrated to a fantasy world, but in the absolute worst way possible

I never went back to that game after I drove off-site halfway through the weekend. And though I've been to several LARPs since (even the occasional boffer LARP), I have never, ever had that negative an experience at a game.

Lessons Learned

Despite how negative this first experience was, I learned a lot from it. Mainly, I made a list of questions I wanted answered by the ST staff before I decided to dedicate my time, my resources, and my creativity to joining a game. While this list isn't exhaustive, I would suggest that anyone running a LARP has answers to the following questions.

- What gear will I need to play this game?
- Will any of this gear be provided, or must I show up with it on my own?
- What standards does my gear need to meet in order to be allowed?
- Where is the rulebook?
- Is there an age cut-off for people who will be playing this game?
- Is there a process for lodging player complaints?
- Is there an FAQ, or a staff member in charge of showing new players the ropes?
- What costuming requirements are there? How stringently will they be enforced?
- What punishments do the staff hand out to players who break rules, such as talking OOC?

Having clear, concise answers to these questions is a requirement for me to show up to a LARP. And I can safely say that I think this list has helped me find venues I enjoy.

That's all for this week's Table Talk installment. I figured that folks might like a few more one-offs as a break after Mummy's Mask, so I won't likely have any long-running tales for a bit. As always, if you have a story of your own you want to submit, please do! If you want to get more content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive. If you want to stay up-to-date on all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and toss some change in my cup. $1 a month makes a big difference, and it gets you some sweet swag as a thank you!


  1. Hey, big fan of the blog. Have you considered making a post about things like Tucker's Kobalds?

    1. Wouldn't be out of the question, but I'm only vaguely familiar with that particular story.

    2. The vague idea is that a GM managed to use tactics and cruelty to make a small group of level 1 Kobalds into a more feared enemy for a (large) level 6-12 group than CR15 Demons.

  2. This was really informative, thank you!

  3. That place seems like a bad larp organization. Ive been larping on and off for...many years and never seen somethinf like a punishment for ooc talk. Generally of youre just alone with a friend minding youre own business, no one really bothers. The " you must do npc hours" is...annoying, never have i been forced to do it, its alaays been optionnal and appreciated. That larp place seems likes it ran by some people who believe that they have more power over their guest than they actually have. To bad it was your first experience. Could've easily turned anybody off of larps.

  4. Sounds like you attended a poorly run and put together LARP :( we have down events from time to time, but I've never had any group be quite as exclusive as that one sounds. My experience is that everyone I see will lend things, explain things and all different stuff. In terms of the OOC stuff, only in the most serious moments would it be deemed not cool to drop OOC, and even then a time freeze can be called for safety reasons ect.