Is it live, or is it role-playing?

Let’s talk about live role-playing. Oi! Come back here! Live role-players aren’t all bad – ok, maybe just a little bit – and it’s not all about running through muddy fields, latex sword in hand.

Perhaps I’d better start off by making a few (yawn!) explanations. Role-playing games are about taking the part of a fictional character and following it’s story through a variety of situations. Live role-playing (LRP) games up the ante somewhat. In a live role-playing game you physically represent your character: everything you say and do becomes his/her actions. Instead of having someone describe what you can see, everything is there for interaction.

You may be thinking that LRP is little different from table-top games, except that much more effort has to go into making these things for the players to interact with. So why bother? After all, it’s much easier to sit down, talk, and eat crisps, than to travel to an isolated site (it will be isolated – let’s face it, any neighbours are unlikely to be very impressed), don appropriate clothing, and quite possibly get all sweaty and icky.

Well, for one thing, there’s the atmosphere. When a live game works well, you start to suspend disbelief and can get scared, happy, sad, whatever. You find yourself shouting and screaming over nothing at all, and only later notice just how high an adrenalin rush you were on. That feels good. Add to the fun and excitement, a post session party and you have an event which is really well worth looking forward to.

“But”, you cry, “I don’t want to dress up as Elbert the Doomer, slayer of thousands with his sardonic sword Fido”. And just how do you get into a fight without hurting someone? No-one wants to go home from a game via the local infirmary, but surely action is an important part of any situation life-threatening enough to give that adrenalin rush? First off, don’t be suckered into thinking all LRP games are high fantasy. Murder mystery parties are a form of live role-playing, and almost any genre can be plundered to form the foundations of an entertaining game.

I’ve never seen anyone badly injured in LRP combat, because organisers and players take adequate safety precautions. It’s also important to note that many modern games are not combat orientated – Gothic horror games, for example, can scare the socks off you without a single violent act. Here are two examples which will hopefully give you a much better idea of the kind of story that can be easily played out in an LRP session.

Christian Linnert, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The story so far: it’s a winter evening, the players are a group of apparently unconnected individuals from all walks of life, lured to a remote country pub by a series of mysterious letters, and from there to an old house. The host has disappeared. Strange figures have been seen wandering about. There’s no power, and only a few small torches and candles provide illumination. The visitations increase, player characters start to suffer from a serious of injuries and breakdowns, and it becomes apparent that some of the worst things that have happened in their lives have been carefully planned by someone.

Old notes are found which suggest that all the characters are descended from a single individual who hundreds of years ago was a witch hunter. That’s when the vampires turn up, and it becomes obvious that no-one’s coming out alive unless a way is found to deal with a vengeful witch who’s now a vampire…

This was the basis for a fairly successful gothic horror scenario. No rubbery swords and the monsters were a couple of people in stage make up. It worked because it represented ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Of course it’s not easy for such an adventure to be a success. It relies upon the ‘acting’ abilities of the players rather than any physical proficiencies.

But if you want a bit more action than a cerebral horror adventure can, try this. The setting is modern day Iraq, a little while after the Gulf War. Weapons inspectors have heard of a laboratory in the far north of the country that is performing hideous experiments on live subjects drawn from the local Kurdish populace. It is decided that a highly illegal team of experts (the player characters), will parachute in to deal with the place, since it’s proving impossible to get an official inspection team there. Just before the player characters are due to leave, a radio monitoring station in Turkey picks up reports of some kind of battle going on at the lab. Then the transmissions go dead and the PC’s are sent in anyway.

The plot from here on in, has little to do with mad scientists. Meet a live role-playing version of Predator, an alien has come to the hills, pursued by it’s nemesis, and has gotten involved with the experiments. The player characters are slowly picked off, either by the monster, it’s swarm of underlings, or each other, as subplots take effect, involving various covert organizations attempting to get hold of the lab’s original research and the alien’s secret. Gun play, quotes from Aliens and a fair bit of player intrigue were the secret to this scenario’s success.

These represent different ends of the LRPG spectrum. The first relies on weirdness, slow realization and an escalating sense of hopelessness to enthrall and terrify the players. In the second, the referees followed the law of film-making according to James Cameron. It was full of chases, very sharp shocks and a count-down to destruction.

Other options are available. As many, in fact, as you can think of genres to base a story upon. It helps if all the players understand the ground-rules of the genre. Don’t do a game based on an obscure series of novels if none of your players have ever read any of them. Instead you’re better off being more mainstream and cinematic. Base games on classic TV shows or hit movies. In fact a fair description of participating in an LRP game is that it’s the nearest thing you can get to being in a movie. Go on, play James Dean!

Rob Lyn Davies

If any of this rhetoric has whetted your appetite for live role-playing, here’s the address of a group which provides high quality games: Fear of the Dark, c/o Sean Knight, 239 Mill Heath, Bettws, Newport, Gwent, NP9 6RD.