LARP is over. So declare several online articles, decrying the end of the LARP phenomenon. Their general argument is thus: LARP was a flash in the pan, which achieved some success and popular recognition in the 2010s, as a result of the general upswing of ‘nerd culture’ from uncool fringe to mainstream geek chic. Then, the COVID-19 nixed the vast majority of in-person events, and LARP was an unfortunate casualty. In the post-COVID world, in-person events of all sorts are reserved only for has-beens and old people, the argument runs: the future for culture is online, in digital spaces and the emerging metaverse.
This is certainly news to the millions of new LARPers who have only became engaged in the hobby since the pandemic. In Albert Payne’s 1912 biography of Mark Twain, the famous American author is subject to a rumour that he was seriously ill. Twain was, in fact, in perfect health, and when his representatives were contacted by a journalist to confirm his death, Twain replied in person: “The report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.” Similarly, reports of LARP’s death have grossly exaggerated. Is LARPing still a thing? Absolutely it is! LARP is going from strength to strength – and its showing no sign of stopping yet.
The Rise of LARP
LARP traces its DNA back to a wide variety of predecessors – from improv theatre and the Commedia dell’arte of Renaissance Italy, via the Gothic literature of Horace Walpole, Sir Walter Scott and Clara Reeve, to 20th century fantasy by Tolkien, LeGuin and Jordan, and the tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) milieu of the early 1970s. Early forms of combat LARP emerged in that same decade: the ‘Hobbit War’ inaugurated by D.C. college student Bryan Weise – this would later evolve into the Dagorhir combat game, which is now an international federation spanning the entire globe. In the 1980s, the Society for Interactive Fiction was founded by a group of Harvard students: their focus was much more roleplay-heavy, informed by the tradition of improvisational theatre. At the same time, UK hobbyists launched a proto-adventure LARP Treasure Trap, which ran over three years at the spectacular Victorian castle at Peckforton. From the off, these events generated significant media interest (Treasure Trap was even featured on the BBC’s flagship youth TV programme Blue Peter!).
For the first period of LARP history, events mostly focused around the fantasy-medieval themes prevalent in 20th century fantasy. But from the 1990s on, LARPs became much more diverse, attracting a much wider substratum of players who might be less interested in castles and knights and the like. The TTRPG Vampire: The Masquerade quickly spawned official (and unofficial) LARP versions of the game, which are now found all over the world. The 2000s saw a significant rise in popularity of modern and sci-fi inspired LARPs, including Weird West settings, and LARP translations of the Call of Cthulhu supernatural-horror roleplaying game.
LARP and the Pandemic
So – in the late 2010s, the LARPing hobby could not have been healthier. The decade saw the explosion in popularity of a large variety of hobbies which were previously socially outcast, damned as ‘dorky’ and apparently deserving of schoolroom bullying. The main phenomenon from this period was the wild increase in popularity of the Dungeons and Dragons TTRPG, driven by a wave of 1980s nostalgia, typified by the ultra-retro Stranger Things HBO science-fiction TV drama. This nerd-wave spilled outward into many other related hobbies, including LARP. Huge LARP events began to appear – for example, the UK’s Empire LARP (the game which I play!), which boasts four thousand participants, or Canada’s Bicolline, which takes place across a huge purpose-built landscape including two villages and 220+ permanent structures.
The emergence of COVID-19 in December 2019, and its rapid spread into a global pandemic in early 2020, presented enormous challenges for the LARP community. As noted in Nordic LARP’s blog on the topic, LARP events were the perfect environment for COVID-19 to spread rapidly, and many states quickly passed laws banning mass gatherings, which naturally impacted LARP events too. But though LARPers were often prevented from meeting in person, LARPers didn’t simply give up: they improvised (as is our wont) to create new spaces in which character and immersion could still be found amid the global chaos. Evan Torner writes of running a Papal election LARP game over a number of weeks, in the same vein as the legendary play-by-mail game Diplomacy (published in 1954). LARPers turned to other TTRPGs, using online play tools like Roll20 and DnD Beyond, which facilitated immersion and play at a distance. Many players wrestled with what LARP would look like in a COVID world, devising new safety protocols and strategies for managing the risk of in-person events, when they began again.
A Whole New World
LARPers are an irrepressible lot. The gradual easing of restrictions as the COVID-19 pandemic receded in intensity meant that events could now begin in earnest again. But the enthusiasm and joy which players were able to find in times past had not died down at all – in fact, an entirely new generation of players, who had gotten involved in the newly-popular ‘nerd hobbies’ during the pandemic, were now champing at the bit for new experiences outside their claustrophobic four walls. LARP groups have seen a massive resurgence in interest, greater even than that of pre-pandemic levels. To take just one tiny example, the Tyrant’s Thorn group in Richmond, KY, began after the end of COVID restrictions – and it’s swelled to more than 50 regular attendees.
That’s not to say that LARP doesn’t face some challenges in the post-COVID world. Some cities, particularly those which took a big economic hit during COVID, have struggled to revive their LARP scenes, with key organizers ending up having to move elsewhere or struggling with post-COVID symptoms. But LARPers have taken a pro-active approach to managing LARPs in the 2020s, ensuring social distancing and COVID testing. LARP is arguably the ideal post-COVID hobby: it’s outdoors in the fresh air, where people are far less likely to get sick, and it’s a very welcome slice of escapism from the cares of the everyday world.
So – is LARPing still a thing? You bet your last gold coin it is! There’s no better time to join the hobby. Why not dive headfirst into LARP with our quick-start guide on How To Join A LARP Group In Your Area – you’ll be stuck in before you know it.