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Monday, 13 August 2012

Book Of The Month: Leaving Mundania


Roleplaying games, I'm well aware, are still generally regarded as a niche hobby, that carries a degree of stigma through continued ignorance and (often deliberate) misinformation.

However, in comparison, "live action role-playing games" (or "larps") are the red-headed stepchild of RPGs, the gaming genre that other geeks look down their noses at.

Journalist Lizzie Stark's fascinating Leaving Mundania: Inside The Transformative World of Live Action Role-Plaing Games goes a long way towards correcting that view.

What a lot of us tend to overlook, in our off-hand dismissal of larping, is that - like RPGs themselves, as well as books, comics, movies and music - larp is just a medium for telling a variety of stories.

Although during her three-year investigation into the hobby, Lizzie spent two years 'embedded' in Dungeons & Dragons-like fantasy larp Knight Realms, she also sampled a broad spectrum of other larps.

As well as touching on the difference between larping and re-enactments, the book includes a look at larp-like military exercises in a $10 million 'make-believe' town, convention larps and the legendary Nordic larp scene.

The Scandinavians have elevated larping to an art-form - and it is far more mainstream in Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden - and Lizzie spent nine days in Denmark studying the avant-garde larp culture there.

As fascinating as these latter chapters were, Lizzie chose - I guess for the sake of variety, and for her own personal taste - to concentrate on the more earnest, high-art larps which struck me as about as appealing as the self-indulgent, lo-fi Dogme film movement (which it was partially inspired by).

Some of these larps are almost like tortuous psychotherapy exercises crossed with improv plays, rather than fun games. We only get tantalising hints of the excesses of Nordic fantasy and sci-fi larps here.

Although the interviewees throughout the book get a chance to "tell you about their characters", this isn't really a book of war stories, as Lizzie is more concerned with how these people find their hobby perceived by others.

While most are loud and proud about their geekiness, there are a couple of interesting interviewees - a star athlete and a police detective - who go to great lengths to segregate the pastime they love from the rest of their life.

A particularly moving interview features a former soldier (a member of a bomb disposal squad who has seen action in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan) who larps - and does Second World War re-enactments - possibly as a way of dealing with certain issues.

He was a larper before he became a soldier, but understandably his attitude to his hobby has changed because of his career - although not necessarily in ways you might expect.

One chapter is devoted to Lizzie running her own larp for a group of friends who've never larped before - and she is pleasantly surprised by the revelation that most (although not all) find it a really enjoyable experience - despite their initial prejudices.

A great deal is also made of the logistics that goes into organising these events - be they one-offs or regular, on-going games like Knight Realms - and as a gamer (and sometime gamesmaster) it struck me what a monumental task this is (especially compared to tabletop RPGs).

Throughout the book, Lizzie retains a degree of self-consciousness about "playing adult dress-up", but also embraces the fact that if you are with a group of similar minded people you can get by by "playing your character".

Leaving Mundania is a quick, easy and informative read that does a good job of explaining the intricacies, styles and jargon of the larp hobby as well as differentiating the variety of genres.

There are a few typos - an increasing problem I'm discovering with modern books - and, at least, one factual error: the paratroop unit featured in Band Of Brothers was Easy Company, not Dog Company. If this was Lizzie's error then it's understandable as World War II reenactment is not her thing, but if it was an error by the re-enactor she was interviewing then that's quite a serious FUBAR as you really should know who you're supposed be!

As I've grown up and matured, my geeky bigotry towards larping has eased off over the years and - if I was fitter - I could probably be tempted to indulge. Leaving Mundania has helped make me appreciate that larping is "just another geeky hobby" and actually quite a fascinating one to study if not to indulge in.

2 comments:

  1. I've got a whole bunch of friends who LARp, and almost as many who do historical re-enactment, with more than cross over. I used to be part of Napoleonic re-enactment, the ££rd foot if anyone wants to know, and have spent three years running a monthly 'rubber fangs' live game. I do get a little of what you mean about the stigma of hobby and sub-hobby, but overall, I think that almost everyone who's been given the chance to try out any of the facets of the hobby I love has found something in them that they like. And it's by this open play, where anyone is encouraged to join in as opposed to elitism with the various hobbies that will get rid of all the stigma in time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Although it's not addressed in the book, I personally believe that a lot of the tabletop gamers snootiness to larps comes from the early days when many non-gamers (and particularly the media) believed (or chose to believe without fact-checking) that "dressing up" was an essential element of tabletop games and that larping and RPGs were essentially one and the same thing.

      The rise of geek culture, and the mainstreaming of the major cons like Comic-Con, has gone a long way towards explaining to non-gamers that larp is its own entity.

      What the book does a good job of is stressing that non-gamers who "try out" larping - with an open mind - can find it a very enjoyable hobby.

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