The World Of Live Role-Playing Games Doesn’t Stop At Dragons And Trolls

A copy of 'Nordic Larp' by Jaakko and Markus Montola. Photo from flickr.
A copy of ‘Nordic Larp’ by Jaakko and Markus Montola. Photo from flickr.

HOST 1: In this busy world of touch screens and long commutes, there are those who find time to get together and LARP.

HOST 2: It stands for live-action role playing, a type of fantasy game where people actually get up and move around instead of rolling dice. In recent years, LARP is turning out to be more of an umbrella term than a single hobby. Pierre Bienaimé reports.

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It’s Saturday night at an acting studio near the Flatiron District.

SOUND: Ambi from Tada! Studios

More than a dozen men and women settle down at tables to play a live-action role playing game. It’s called One World By Night, and everyone here is pretending to be a vampire.

Things start off slowly, with small groups or pairs of players talking quietly. But it all kicks off when one of them moves to a side of the room. He’s in character, arms crossed, and fuming because he lost half of his vampire “pack” in an ambush.

MAETKE: Timmy’s dead. And he ain’t coming back. (0:02)

All of that happened off-stage instead of in the game, but now this player is demanding action from one of the group’s senior leaders. He wants some kind of effort to get revenge. But the leader isn’t having it.

GUY: I would urge our erstwhile newcomer to hold his tongue and keep the face of his highly-respected loyalist pack. (0:08)

All eyes are on the two of them. Players are quietly lining up on one side or the other. It’s a blood-sucker’s take on West Side Story. Then all hell breaks loose.

SOUND: “Uh, we’re in combat rounds.” Laughter

Not physically. Players here resolve conflicts with what’s called a chop. It’s a weird version of rock, paper, scissors. If you win, everyone understands that your character has won.

SOUND: Players saying: “1, 2, 3,” and others reacting

The leader wins. It’s a turning point in the plot and sets up the rest of the evening. The two who fought each other knew all of this was coming. One of them, the loudmouth, is Andrew Maetke (MET-key). He’s what’s called a “storyteller,” one of the key players who drives the plot the other vampires live in.

MAETKE: The closest explanation I can give is it’s sort of a structured improv. We have a lot of people here… And we provide a setting and they react in real time and talk to each other and make decisions and build story together. (0:10)

Maetke says what he enjoys most about LARPing is when players change the story on him.

MAETKE: It’s really fun and exhilarating when you write the story and you think it’s gonna go this way and then somebody hooks onto a piece of it and does something you really didn’t expect… That’s exciting, that’s really fun for me. (0:10)

It’s really not so different from make believe. Anything can happen, as long as a few players are willing to dream it up. And here, a number of them enjoy really getting into character.

ALPERT: My character, his name is Louis Cohen. (0:02)

That’s Gabriel Alpert. When he’s in the game, he answers to Louis Cohen, a southern gentleman with fangs.

ALPERT [in his southern drawl]: Yes, I really do enjoy the accent. I’ve got this accent, my other character he does the Yiddish accent, so he’s trying to do a lot of things there. (0:09)

Maetke, too, isn’t here just to manage the game. He says he’s a little introverted by nature. One World By Night helps him be more confident.

MAETKE: If not pushed I would hole up and ignore everybody. This gets me out and makes me talk to people. (0:04)

Players hang out once a month like this, and every time they pick up where they left off, with the same character. Role-playing games that revolve around conversation like this are known as parlor, or theatrical LARPs.

Lizzie Stark, a long-time LARPer who wrote a book about it two years ago, is into a different kind of game.

SOUND: Central Park ambi fading up

STARK: I like games that have as few rules as possible. The rules for some of these games that I’m playing fit on one paragraph. (0:06)

It’s called Nordic LARP—Nordic because it evolved in Scandinavia. It often takes live action role-playing into more realistic—and intense—scenarios.

STARK: There was a big LARP about the summer AIDS came to New York City. And that game focused on what it was like to be gay at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. (0:12)

Stark says Nordic LARP—and LARPing in general—gives players a chance to explore the deeply personal.

STARK: I hope I never experience divorce, right? I’m married to a husband I love very much and I do not want to divorce him, but it is sort of interesting to think about why would someone get divorced.

BIENAIME: Learning what it would be like to be in a different life?

STARK: Yeah, exactly. Uh, exactly. (0:17)

SOUND: Central Park ambi fading out

Back at the vampire LARP, things aren’t always so serious. David Siegelman says the main reason he plays is…

SIEGELMAN: Enjoyment. Same reason why other people play baseball or play real-time stratey games on the computer. It’s fun! (0:09)

Their next meetup is later this month. Pierre Bienaimé, Columbia Radio News.

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