Penelope Frances Endicott – Female, early-30s, American
Augustus’s third and last wife.
– Character Sheet for the Brass & Steel game, “Betrayal, Madness & Regret”
LARP. If you’re wondering whether that acronym stands for a new form of technology, or an infectious disease, you’re not alone. (And fortunately, by the way, it’s neither. Although some people might call it infectious, as in, infectiously fun.)
The initials, it turns out, stand for Live Action Role Play.
(Brass & Steel creator Greg Kveberg explains some of the LARP’s key story distinctives.)
Don’t feel bad if you just learned something new. LARP was unfamiliar to me, as well, until I launched the Aurelia Project back in 2013. RPGs (Role Playing Games, I’d heard of, but to me these were all table-top affairs with game boards and dice, relying on a mostly-cerebral skill set.)
LARP, by contrast, takes the action to a whole new level. Players actually embody a character physically. Many wear costumes, carry props, or act out story lines in a very real way. There might even be powder-packet “spells” and foam weapon “duels” as part of game play. Each LARP system offers its own configuration of “levels” and “points,” while assigned “skills” and “abilities” help determine which character triumphs in a conflict. In many LARPs, it’s actually possible for your character to die.
If you like acting or cosplay, LARP is a natural next step.
Even thought I’d had my introduction to LARP by running a video-based version through Aurelia, I’ve never actually LARPed in a live setting with a group of other human beings. (Robots, however … okay, just kidding!) Which is why I was so excited to try out the alternate history-themed LARP Brass & Steel with strong steampunk elements at this year’s Midwinter Gaming Convention.
I guess I got lucky, because this year’s game was mastered by two of the three creators of Brass & Steel: Greg Kveberg and Ken Vinson. Set in a ridiculously large (and creepy) mansion of the late armaments tycoon Augustus Endicott (which doubles as a ballroom at Milwaukee’s downtown Hilton on less-illustrious days), the story line followed a motley collection of relations, friends, enemies, and erstwhile gold-diggers who assembled for the reading of the deceased’s will.
As you might imagine, there’s quite a bit of uncertainty around old Endicott’s death. And the mansion itself held a few surprises for its scheming guests along the way.
My character was Augustus’s third and last wife, Penelope Francis Endicott. She’s a bit of a scrappy girl, having started out poor and worked her way into the Endicott family graces with her smart bookkeeping skills. Finding herself married to old Augustus, she may have taken a few precautions of her own . . . one of which might have been poisoning the old man.
(Personally, I rather doubt it. The family physician, however, is a different story altogether!)
As Penelope, I made it through four hours of improv acting, Machiavellian mind games and dice rolls . . . which is no mean feat for an Aspie, an introvert, and a first-time LARPer. (Opinion solely my own, of course.)
But there were a few things I didn’t quite expect. And I’d now put them at the top of my list for why you should try LARP (particularly Brass & Steel) if you haven’t yet!
1) Character development
I mean the literary kind, not the moral, by the way. LARP forces you to take on a totally different persona and quickly develop their motivations and history into a believable set of actions that (nine times out of ten) must hoodwink your fellow characters into helping you achieve your goals. In my case, one of Penelope’s goals on the character sheet I received was to find out exactly who killed her husband. That meant prying information cleverly out of other characters . . . while dodging the marriage proposals of potential suspects.
2) Allies & enemies
As human beings, our lives are full of questions. Whom should I trust? With whom should I place my allegiance? Is it smarter to hang out with this group, or that? How should I evaluate this person’s motive? LARP places all these questions in front of you, and more, in an extremely compact frame of time. You’re forced to make alliances and enemies based on how you see the character chessboard unfolding toward your goals. Always think five moves ahead. It’s as essential in LARP as in life.
I’m reminded that today’s actors—in both theater and film—increasingly are being asked to act in environments they can’t actually see. Whether it’s navigating a digital set projection in theater, or green screens in film, the ability to build your own environment in your head, and navigate it as if it really existed, is an invaluable one for anyone involved in acting or even cosplay. In the case of my experience, I was surprised how challenging it was to remember which “room” I was in (really which group I was standing in), and remember not to miraculously “cross rooms” or show up in a part of the mansion where I couldn’t possibly have gotten in a logical amount of time.
4) New friendships
There’s nothing that bonds you to someone else like chasing them through a room for four hours. When everyone is “IC” (In Character) it’s all business. But the moment the master calls “OOC” (Out Of Character) or the game takes a break for refreshment, it’s not too hard to strike up a conversation as your “real” self . . . and discover that your arch rival might really be your new best friend.
When I interviewed Greg and Ken about Brass & Steel awhile back, I had no idea what the real experience of their game would be like. From a novice LARPer’s point of view, it was an easy world to enter and find a place for myself. Even with the “adjustments” made to the alternate history, I could select a fairly simple character and play at my own level. I didn’t have to be as good at the Machiavellian aspect as others to thoroughly enjoy my experience.
And maybe that’s the real point of LARP after all: not to escape the world we live in, but to step outside of it just for a moment . . . and in the process, learn something about ourselves.