Live action roleplaying.
It’s not about the costume, it’s not about the combat, it’s not even about the characterisation. It’s about the stories.
Much like any other field of human endeavour, larp has Internet forums. And these forums have flamewars. “What is larp?” is a regular starting point. I’m not going to attempt to produce the definition of larp. (Partly because I think it’s a genuinely personal question: it’s so closely influenced by “What do you, personally, get out of larp?” And partly because Wikipedia has a decent enough general definition.) But I am going to try and say what I think larp is about, and place it next to its near neighbours. If only so I can frame some other thoughts and later posts. I do not expect anyone to agree 100%. And I reckon I could find exceptions to all of these precepts somewhere. So, just imagine a big IMHO in front of every sentence, and a broad tolerance of grey areas…
Larp isn’t like table-top roleplaying games, in that participants physically act out their character’s actions rather than talking them through.
Larp isn’t necessarily about the winning and losing; although it can be, in a variety of ways. In the sense that larp is a recreational activity with a set of rules, it is a game and has players.
Larp isn’t the same as cosplay; while larpers almost always wear costume to help immersion into the game world, costumes aren’t judged, and are a tool of characterisation rather than an end in themselves.
Larp isn’t the same as improvisational theatre; larpers are in character, but there’s no audience. If you’re there, you’re actively involved.
Larp isn’t the same as alternate reality gaming. In an alternate reality game, the game is played within the real world; there’s no move from out-of-game to in-game time and space as there is in larp, no pre-published ruleset and minimal, if any, player characterisation.
I’m pretty sure larp isn’t the same as pervasive gaming, although I’m honestly not sure. I think pervasive gaming is a superset of ARG, without the shared pretense that it “might not be a game”, and isn’t larp for the same reasons. I do know that I don’t know enough about pervasive gaming. “Play things called pervasive games” is high on my list of things to do this year.
A larp is governed by its rules system, which governs those character actions that cannot be represented by unmoderated physical action alone. Combat, for example. Things which would be dangerous if you failed, perhaps. These rules systems vary tremendously. Some are pleasingly light, some much heavier.
Every larp is set in a situation defined by a game organiser; usually a team as it’s quite a job. That situation may involve an entire fictitious world, hundreds of thousands of words of character background and briefing information, an extensive system moderating what happens in between live events, costume standards, or it may be a few sketched paragraphs and rely mainly on improvisation.
Larp is about characterisation; although for me all that matters is the externalisation of that character, I’m not so bothered if you become your character in the sense I understand as “method acting”. Just as in table-top roleplaying, some of those characters are defined and represented by the players, and some by the organisers.
Larp covers a wide variety of sizes and styles of games and genres. I’ve played in games with a handful of players, up to those in the low thousands. I’ve played in games where the characters was faced with atomic situations, one after the other, and ones where your character was placed in a world and just got on with defining your own story in it alongside hundreds of others doing just the same. (For what it’s worth, I’ve usually called the first “linears” and the second “fests”)
Larp is a story-generating machine. You put characters and a situation in at one end, and stories come out of the other. With moderation by a ruleset, and a greater or lesser degree of manipulation by game organisers along the way…
That last paragraph is the most important to me. I suspect I could happily froth on about this for thousands more words. Of course, then I’d never hit “Publish”. And I’m told you can’t go about worrying about being Wrong on the Internet too much.