A Brief Introduction to Live Roleplaying

Copyright 1995 Peter Maranci

The first thing to know about live roleplaying is that it's big. Too big for anyone to properly describe in anything shorter than a book. With roots as varied as the Society for Creative Anachronism, the 'Method' style of acting, theater in general, and even children's cops & robbers games, live roleplaying is actually far bigger than traditional table-top RPGs - and far older. At the same time, live roleplaying is actually the new kid on the horizon of the roleplaying scene! With all that in mind, here's a small introduction to live roleplaying.

Some people still can't decide what to call the person who runs a traditional roleplaying game. Dungeonmaster? Gamemaster? Referee? Moderator? It's a question that's been argued for years in some circles, and probably will be for years to come. Likewise, there are many different opinions as to what 'live roleplaying' should properly be called. After all, other kinds of roleplaying aren't 'dead', right?

LARP ("Live-Action Roleplaying") games come in two basically different flavors: Interactive Literature and Live Combat. These two types are actually quite different from each other, and have different strengths and weaknesses.


Interactive Literature games are usually one-shot events. They're often run at hotels during science-fiction or gaming conventions, but some groups put on games without associating them with a con. Players dress up and act out their roles, but all combat is handled by some non-physical system such as cards or scissors-paper-rock. You can't have people fighting in the halls and upsetting the regular guests, after all! But the focus of IL games is rarely combat. Instead, players must use special skills, abilities, knowledge and possessions to interact with the other players. Intrigue, conspiracy, backstabbing, wheeling & dealing, and coalition-building are the main elements of such games.

Though many of these games give players the opportunity to pre-register, it's also often possible to register for a walk-on role at the game itself. Usually players are given a pre-written character, ready-made by the Gamemasters with goals, desires, and a personality already determined. While they may let you indicate what sort of character you'd like to play during pre-registration, there are no guarantees - often the character you receive has little or nothing to do with the personality and characteristics requested. Players usually receive a special badge with their character name on it, a packet of information about the rules and background of the game, a special character sheet with private information, and cards representing money or special items that the character possesses. Players then go out into the area of the game and mingle, working out their individual plots.

Characters in IL-type games generally can't be carried over from game to game - each is specifically written for that game alone, and is the property of the Gamemasters. In other words, each new Interactive Literature game is a whole new story, and you can't bring in a character you've already played (with rare exceptions). The Vampire: The Masquerade IL-type LARP allows continuing characters, however.

Games can last anywhere from a few hours up to two or more days. The length of the game is generally pre-set, with a group meeting scheduled at the end of the event.

These games generally have anywhere from twenty to one hundred and fifty or more players. Often more than one gamemaster puts on the game; they operate out of a "control room" where players can go to have special acts judged, resolve disputes, get information, buy items, or any number of other special actions. Typically some of the gamemasters also spend time wandering around the area. In some games the GMs take specialized roles, such as "The God of Wizards", "Martian Trading Factor", or "Fate". In such games they often handle only those things which pertain to their role, and players must find the proper GM for their needs.

An advantage to IL games is that they're far more flexible in setting. Since all the action takes place on a social and conversational level, the games can be set in any sort of background: science fiction, fantasy, horror, even comedy. Sometimes such games use a specific setting. Asimov's Foundation, Baum's The Wizard of Oz, and even the macabre world of H. P. Lovecraft have been made into Interactive Literature games. The atmosphere in such games can be tremendous, if they're handled right. If handled poorly they can be more disappointing than a game with a generic background - for fans of that particular game-world.

Interactive Literature games offer a chance to play a role within a large group. Success often depends on how well you can deal with (or manipulate) people. In that context, however, Interactive Literature can be an enormously involving and fun roleplaying experience.

On the down side, IL games are frustrating if run or written poorly. In many games not all the characters are equal: the Mayor of Marakesh is far more important than Hasim, the street begger, for example. Sometimes the "better" roles are given to those who sign up first for the game, but often key roles are given to players that the GMs know and trust. This can result in favoritism if handled badly, or if the more powerful players choose to make life difficult for lesser characters.

Some IL games become little more than "widget hunts". In these, several peices of something important have been split up between a number of characters. The parts must be gathered and assembled correctly to accomplish the goal of the game. Such games are often characterized by lots of trading between characters. They can be boring unless the players work to put a lot of drama and intrigue into their roles.

There are a few things that any player in an Interactive Literature game can do to increase the chance for enjoyment and success. Here are five:

1) Keep Your Secrets! Never let anyone see your character sheet. Keep at least some of your characters' secrets for as long as you can. Once they're told, they'll soon become common knowledge. It's much more fun to be the only person who knows the one thing that everyone is wondering about, and it can give you power and leverage over the others as the game comes to a peak.

2) Know Your Associates! Most characters are written with goals that give them a smaller plot within the larger framework. These are usually written to push several characters together. The character information sheet will indicate associates, friends, and enemies in this case. Meet them, talk to them, find out what you can - but,

3) Trust No One! Everyone has secrets, and unless the game is quite unusual they're all looking out for Number One. Alliances are possible, and even necessary - but remember that everyone has secret goals, and you don't really know all their motivations.

4) Go For The Unusual Angle! If your character is a minor one with a limited role, it's often worthwhile to search for some way to throw a monkey wrench into the works of the game. Steal something valuable (in game terms) and hide it, or make up a false story and spread it around. There's nothing stopping you from making up a new organization or plot. When I found myself with nothing left to do in one game, I amused myself by writing up incendiary pamphlets attacking the ruling class, and announcing a meeting of a secret group of revolutionaries. Nothing came of it, but the excitement of sneaking around and putting up revolutionary posters without being caught was the most fun I had in the entire game.

5) Mingle! This is perhaps the most important thing to do. These games are interaction-driven - they're social experiences. A character who doesn't talk to people will have nothing to do. The more people you talk to, the greater the chance that you'll get involved in many different plots.

Two Interactive Literature groups are the Society for Interactive Literature (SIL), perhaps the first IL group; and the Interactive Literature Foundation (ILF), which is a separate organization. The ILF probably has more members overall, while membership in the SIL is by invitation only (you can subscribe to their magazine, though). It's not necessary to join either, however, as both run games that are open to anyone. Most conventions will advertise if a IL game will be part of their activities, and games are often announced in the rec.games.frp.misc and alt.games.frp.live-action newsgroups of the Internet.

There are many other groups that create and run Interactive Literature games, throughout the United States and much of the the world.


Live Combat games are just that - live combat. Players fight with padded weapons (boffers), against NPCs or each other. Apart from that one common point, there's a great deal of variety in this category. There are many organizations which run such games.

A few generalizations: Most Live Combat games are set in a fantasy background. It's a lot easier to use a padded sword or club than a padded blaster! Likewise, most LC games are held outside, which can limit the playing season in some areas. Some LC groups run indoor non- combat games during winter, in cold climes.

Unlike IL games, it's usually necessary to join an organization to play in a Live Combat game. This is due to the fact that though such games are generally very safe, with safety checks of all boffers, nonetheless they must have insurance - and insurance companies prefer that all participants sign a waiver and pay to join the group.

Most LC groups allow you to create your own character, within their rules and guidlelines. The character may be played again and again, going from game to game. As time goes by, the character may gain "experience", adding abilities and powers which are often represented as "levels". Characters may usually be taken in certain specialized classes. such as Thief, Wizard, Fighter, and others.

Does that sound familiar? It should. In many ways most LC games much resemble Dungeons & Dragons™.

There are two basic types of game in the Live Combat scool of roleplaying: the Line Course and the World Course. In the line course a small group of players (three to ten) travel along a set route, with a very specific goal in mind. They begin with a request for aid from a patron, who gives them information on the prize to be recovered or the enemy to be destroyed. Setting out, the party meets monsters, bandits, traps, friends, and other challenges along the way. Usually there are puzzles to be solved, and a final showdown with the forces of Evil - a Battle Royale. At the epilogue the reward is bestowed, and the loot gained in the adventure is divided amongst the party. And at least some groups have a pizza party at a member's house after the game.

The line course is very much like an old-fashioned D&D™ dungeon, with a very limited number of options for the players - the difference being that the game is held outside, and combat is done physically rather than with dice. Though having such limited choice of action might sound frustrating, in most cases it isn't - the physical challenge and excitment of not knowing what might be lurking behind a rock or within the bushes keeps players on their toes, much too busy to worry about what choices they can make. It's fun, the way that even a clunky old D&D™ module can be fun once in a while.

A World Course is a much bigger proposition: an outdoor area is filled with NPCs, perhaps in the form of a fantasy village or town (much like a Renaissance Fair). Players may wander around the area, interacting with each other as they like - in some cases they even may be denizens of the village themselves. This takes a lot of people and resources, but allows many more people to play, too. Only the largest Live Combat groups can put on a world course game.

Such games often have a continuing background - the village and the people within it stay the same game after game, and there is a strict social heirarchy in power. These games can involve quite a bit of intrigue and strategy, with combat less common than in a line course game. After all, the town guards might arrest you for fighting! Incidentally, these games are often played overnight while players and NPCs camp out.

A problem which is common to all LC groups is the question of ranged attacks. How do players use archery to attack far-off enemies, or spells to fight from a distance?

There are many different ways that these problems have been handled. Some groups actually use real bows and arrows with padded tips to represent archery, but this is considered unsafe by most insurance companies. As a result, most such groups are moving to the use of Nerf™-type weapons, which are expensive but very safe indeed.

Other groups use beanbags to represent both arrows and spells. Apart from a high rate of loss (beanbags can be hard to find in a forest) this method works fairly well, though in combat it can be hard to know if you've been hit by a beanbag - and difficult to distinguish between "arrow" bags and "spell" bags.

Other groups use a calling system for ranged spells and archery. The player calls out the damage or effect, and the target - in such games the participants must each try to dress in a specific color, so as to allow an attacker to say "Arrow, four points, blue". This system has drawbacks too, though it's probably the safest of all methods.

Live Combat packs a physical feeling of excitement that no other form of roleplaying can match. A pack of axe-wielding zombies can get your adrenelin pumping a lot quicker when they're real and coming at you than when they're described, or coming at you with index cards. A line course game has the advantage of allowing you to trust your comrades, and work together as a team - ideal for those who are tired of intrigue and backstabbing. World courses can be quite exotic: if everyone has costumed and decorated well, they can provide a more convincing simulation of another world than any other system.

Live Combat games have problems too, of course. The risk of injury is always made as small as possible, but nonetheless it is there. It's usually possible to take a role that less physically demanding then most, but everyone in a game is going to have a good chance of having to defend themselves with a weapon. Unlike IL-type games, a character death means a lot - months or years of playing effort can be lost, though ressurection is a possibility in many games. Since the games are played outside, weather can become a problem - it's hard to roleplay at 18 degrees Farenheit!

A few tips for Live Combat games:

1) Dress Right! Choose your clothing carefully. It should be strong, appropriate to the weather, and safe. You may have to fall down or move quickly, and it could be disasterous to tangle your clothing at the wrong moment, or fall on something hard. Shoes are important in a line course, since they often involve a lot of hiking.

2) Be Prepared. It's a good idea to pack everything you need for several hours - snacks, water, and any first aid or medical supplies you might need. Make sure to inform the gamemasters if you have any special medical requirements.

3) DO NOT TOUCH! Physical contact, particularly in combat situations, is forbidden by nearly all live combat groups. No hand-to- hand fighting is permitted, and all combat must be with padded weapons or ranged effects.

4) NO REAL WEAPONS! Likewise, real weapons are generally banned from LC games, even small dull ones worn just for show. Insurance companies are particularly strict about that restriction!

There are many LARP organizations that use the Live Combat method of gaming; check your local game store or favorite search engine to find ones in your neighborhood.


Both Interactive Literature and Live Combat games share a few points in common. Appropriate costuming is always appreciated, though not necessarily mandatory. A fee is required for most games - this can range from a few dollars to fifty or more. Politeness out-of-game is a good idea. Alcohol and drugs are usually forbidden. Lastly, it's wise not to offend or shock non-players - one large organization found itself banned by the town where their game site was located because of the actions of a few obnoxious members!


Live roleplaying has not been available in commercial form until comparitively recently. Even now, there is no real large-scale push to commercialize the genre, as TSR™ popularized RPGs. But the signs are on the horizon. Live roleplaying is spreading fast, in the form of hundreds of small local LARP organizations. Some are commercial, some are not - but all of these organizations share a desire to spread the word about LARP. Game companies, too, have gotten into the act. Chaosium, the company which produces Call of Cthulhu, published a live "freeform" game. White Wolf published its popular Vampire: The Masquerade LARP, perhaps the most popular form of LARP currently being played.

Various trademarked and copyrighted items are referenced in this article. No challenge to the rights of the holders of these trademarks and copyrights is intended.

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Copyright 1995 by Peter Maranci. Revised: July 08, 2008. v.1.1