Live Action Role Play’s Rich Tudor History

Lizzie Stark, author of a new book on live action role play, chronicles the lavish cultural history of the burgeoning hobby.

I have killed goblins, smoked fake weed, and raised the great elder demon Cthulhu, all in the service of book research for Leaving Mundania, which chronicles the burgeoning hobby of larp, or live action role play. Larp is like an improvised play performed without an audience, a Dungeons & Dragons game undertaken in costume, or a murder-mystery dinner party. Limited only by one’s imagination, larp tells stories from rollicking Lord of the Rings adventure to Mrs. Dalloway-style introspection. In short, larp is make-believe on steroids for adults.

The hobby has a bad rap in the U.S., conjuring pictures of jobless misanthropes living in their parents’ basements and shouting “lightning bolt” while running through the woods in an improvised kilt and elflike ear tips. Stereotypes like this reduce the rich, varied hobby of larp down to one category—the medieval fantasy game—and stigmatize it for its similarity to childhood pretend-play. Dressing up in a costume and enacting a collaborative narrative seems undignified for an adult. And yet hundreds of thousands of people across the world participate in an activity not so different from interactive theatrical installations like the hit Macbeth restaging Sleep No More. Their numbers prove that larp taps into an essential desire of human nature: the desire to experience stories firsthand. Larp is a manifestation of the basic human need for play. Looking at the roots of larp makes the hobby easier to take seriously and divorces the desire from childishness. The history of larp as a hobby for the rich and famous illustrates the superficiality of its current geeky stigma.

Larp’s roots lie in ancient desires and modern invention. The Romans fought mock naval battles and hosted themed costume parties, while from the 16th to the 19th centuries Italians had a tradition of commedia dell'arte, in which troupes of actors engaged in improvised comedy.

Nobody larped like the Tudors, though. Queen Elizabeth I presided over some serious, and seriously expensive, larplike entertainments. Cirque du Soleil has nothing on Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who threw the queen an awesome and ostentatious entertainment when she visited him at Kenilworth Castle in 1575. It cost him at least £17,000, which at that time was roughly enough money to field an army of 1,000 for a year. Amid a busy schedule of hunting, bear-bating, joust-watching, acrobatic shows, and plays, Elizabeth repeatedly encountered figures from myth who popped out of the shrubbery to poetically praise her and to ask for her assistance. For example, while returning from hunting one day, the queen passed over a pool close to the castle. A guy dressed as the sea-god Triton swam up to beseech Her Majesty on behalf of the Arthurian Lady of the Lake, who was being threatened by the evil “Sir Bruce.” After the queen cowed the enemy with the majesty of her aura, the Lady of the Lake glided across the water on a movable island to thank the queen. Later, the mythical musician Arion appeared out of a 20-foot-long mechanical dolphin with a six-piece band hidden inside—the boat was made up so that its oars appeared to be fins.

If the spiritual heritage of larp is ancient, its gaming roots are unapologetically modern. It’s difficult to trace the precise lineage of larp—there’s no one mother game. Rather, pockets of gamers across the world simultaneously decided to enact adventures in their backyards. The late 1970s and early 1980s gave rise to the modern hobby, and also saw the rise of genre fiction, sci-fi and comic book conventions, the Trekkers, and Star Wars. These events inflamed the imagination of Americans, offering heroic alternate worlds for fans to imagine themselves in. In 1974, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson published Dungeons & Dragons, the first tabletop role-playing game, which allowed participants to enter and directly affect an imaginary world. Gygax and Arneson had been inspired by a strategic game that the 19th-century Prussian military required its officers to play, which over the years passed through the hands of numerous enthusiasts—including the writer H.G. Wells—who tweaked the game for their fellow hobbyists.

In 1977, a young college student and avid Tolkien fan named Brian Wiese started a series of what he called “Hobbit Wars,” in which participants would dress up in costume and hit each other with homemade weapons that were covered with foam for safety. Later named Dagorhir, this still-running proto-larp—in which two sides face off against each other, often with a capture-the-flag goal—served as a precursor to the modern hobby, which focuses more immediately on character development and story.

From there, the history of larp becomes so disparate that to trace every lineage and chronicle the many smaller local scenes would fill any number of books. Still, the hobby continues to evolve, particularly in the Nordic countries, which have a robust art scene where games find public funding, tango dancing sometimes replaces duels, and players portray cancer patients—proof that larpers aren’t necessarily escaping reality.

In the U.S., hopes that larp may one day find federal funding are rising. In May 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts expanded its guidelines to include grant applications for digital games, in essence legitimizing it as an art form. Organizations like the newly created Seekers Unlimited will use larp to teach children math, and offer a more traditional educational purpose for potential grants. The federal government has already funded larp in the form of military simulations performed in fake towns with fake bullets. More directly, the U.S. embassy in Oslo last year gave a local group nearly $5,500 for the Cold War larp A Doomsday Eve. But with or without government money, the Lady of the Lake still needs saving. It’s human nature. Get to it, President Obama.