Joonas Laakso with photography by Annika Vesterinen.
In this piece I’ll go through what goes down around a live-action roleplaying event. I hope to inspire someone else to take the first step as I recently have.
I was born in 1978 so I was 41 when I went to my first LARP this week. I say “first” even though I did play in a few LARPs in the 90s when I was still a teenager. So this week I went to my first LARP as an adult, as a complete outsider to the scene. I did know one of the GMs in advance and was on facial recognition basis with a few others, but that’s it.
From what I can tell, things have really changed in 25 years. These are now very experienced adults running events for other adults. There is a lot of effort spent on making sure everyone is comfortable and safe, and that we all take home something from the game with us.
What is LARP?
For me, LARP is immersive roleplaying, with aspects of theater, improvisation, and performance added in for a more complete experience, both internal and external.
I play a lot of tabletop roleplaying games, and for a long time it seemed to me that LARP is just that with costumes and a lot more effort spent on the same outcome. I’m sure those games exist, as well, and I have nothing against them, but to me the only reason to go to a LARP was because it could offer something I couldn’t get anywhere else.
What was the game?
Participants are members of different houses of metal (black, death, trash, gothic, glam, industrial) at an annual debutante ball in 1818 in Bergen, Norway, all stuffy and reserved as in a Jane Austen novel. Being a metal ball, the dances are a combination of “historical” and freeform headbanging. There was zero regard for historical accuracy of representing Norway in 1818 — it was all esthetics and form over subject matter.
There were around 30 participants and another 10 game master and support people (shoutout to the kitchen!). The game was played in an old manor in the quiet countryside of Finland, on a very dark, cold, and wet December night.
How did I feel about the game?
I was mortally terrified of the game in advance.
I was going to go into an intimate and intense group social situation for an extended time, with people I didn’t know, doing something I was not at all familiar with. I put it at a bit less than 50–50 odds that I could go through with the game at all due to anxiety. I’m struggling with at times immobilizing anxiety that gets worse in unclear, packed social situations.
I think I was almost as scared by the first time I took to the stage with the band, and perhaps the time I got married, but that’s really it — my first LARP definitely ranks up there with the most anxiety inducing experiences in my life.
The co-players and game masters managed to make me fully relaxed and at ease before we began. I didn’t even need any meds! I only ran out of mental stamina right at the end and had to go away to hide for a while when the lights came back on.
What was required of me as a player?
I got a six page character and four pages of common knowledge about Bergen in 1818 and the metal families. This was intimidating to say the least! After a single read through I couldn’t picture any concrete actions or wishes I had, it was such a mess in my mind.
I did a second read through and took notes, and managed to condense everything down to three things I wanted to achieve in the game. I did make a cheat sheet but didn’t need it in the end.
There were certainly players who were more familiar with the background than I was, but it was never an issue. I made a few blunders in game due to mixing up the families or characters, but everyone always catched on quick and set me straight. It wasn’t an issue.
I had to come up with a costume, of course. The make-up part made this easy, as I was in the black metal family and could focus on just corpse paint. I’ve been a black metal fan for a decade or so and it was a lot of fun to create my own black metal persona!
It was recommended to have something in the Regency fashion, and then twist it with metal imagery. Most players had made custom clothes with metal on top — spikes, studs, band T-shirts. I didn’t — I wore the skinniest stretch jeans imaginable and put on a vaguely historical black vest with military overtones, which I happened to have from a steampunk party. I added pentagram patches to it on site, and rented a top hat and a spike wristband. It worked fine. I felt self conscious about my bare arms, when everyone else was very covered up in Regency fashion, but then again I was something of a loose cannon and it was the only way I could make my silhouette work in a suitably stark manner.
It was a lot of fun to do the make-up. I practiced a couple of times to make sure I had the right products the right idea. For reference: use moisturiser and a foundation. Then white creme paint, then black water color, lips with black lipstick and a liner. A lot of colorless theater powder on top. As it’s metal it’s not that important to be neat. Nothing run down my face until just before the lights came back on at the end of the game.
What took place?
The game happened over three days, with the game proper lasting just six hours. I don’t know how common this is, but I really appreciate the extra time to get in and out of the game.
On the first night we had workshops to get familiar with each other.
We did metal yoga.
We talked about the fact that we’re all playing straight up evil characters and that there’s going to be a lot of aggression.
We talked about escalation and — crucially — de-escalation techniques, some of which we were loaned from theater (the “West Side Story fights”), some I believe designed for this game (de-escalation signals).
All violence was strictly hands off. We did agree that light pushing with the palm on the shoulder is okay, but everything else is simulated by throwing shredded paper at each other, which allows you to really get into it, but no one can get hurt. Some players wanted more physical contact, which was always agreed on in advance, case by case, between the players. No one was actually hit at any point! We practiced theater slaps, as well.
It was established that no matter the amount of potential violence happening, no character will die during the game. This helped me to cope a lot! I could tell that no matter how far myself or someone else went, nobody’s game would get cut short as a result.
We rehearsed the dances. I had never done group dancing before. It was scary at first and then a lot of fun, much like basically everything else about this.
We rehearsed screaming at each other with our noses almost touching. I expected everyone else to be completely comfortable with all this from the get go, but I had zero issues keeping up: these things don’t come naturally to most of us and there’s a degree of giggling and hesitation at first from basically everyone. It’s fun, not serious.
The comfort and safety of all the participants was obviously of very high importance to the organizers. There was a separate safe room available through the game, and a safety person without any other duties present for the whole three days.
The next day we had ample time for make-up and finishing our costumes, as well as workshopping with our metal family to establish conduct and the shared roles.
Then the game ran from 16 to 22. At the end we had an after party and sauna, this being Finland. I got to bed at four in the morning.
The last day we had a breakfast, followed by a guided wind down and relaxation (metal relaxation!) period, and then debriefing with random groups and everyone you played closely with. We helped out with the clean-up and took off at 13 for the three hour carpool back home.
What surprised me?
My major concern was that the LARP scene is known to be very close, and I expected it to be hard to get in, even for a single game. That was absolutely not the case. I don’t know how specific this is for this GM group’s games, or this specific subset of the local Finnish scene, but I felt welcome and included from minute one. It helped that we carpooled to the game and had time to get to know each other.
In the beginning all newbies were asked to introduce themselves and then the others really made an effort to look after us. I was older than many of my co players, but roleplaying and shared sub cultures and the internet bridged our gaps.
I expected there to be a problem juggling all my plots and personal insecurities and performing as my character. That wasn’t the case. I felt comfortable in my (evil) skin and had clear, in-character thoughts about other characters and plot developments.
I didn’t get as deep into my character as some of the other players, but I’d call it non-interrupted immersion for the whole six hours.
The characters were all evil. I didn’t know what to think about this in advance or how it would feel, but in the end I hoped I would’ve gone deeper into that angle. It’s not something you get to play with every day.
In the debrief sessions we were asked to identify something we’d like to bring back to civilian life from our characters. I was surprised to feel that I had a stronger backbone, a more definite idea of what I want, thanks to being so self-centered for one night. Surely something I’m going to be discussing with my psychotherapist.
I signed up for another LARP by the same crew at the end of the event and really hope to get in. I made many new friends I’m looking forward to playing with again.
The crash back to real life was intense. No wonder LARP players tend to do a lot of it.