So recently I’ve taken the time to expand the number of LARPer’s I know beyond the sandy shores of New Zealand. Of those, most have been in the US. A number of the cast of Realm of LARP, Lizzie Stark, LARP warrior, Molly McIsaac, Larping.org to name a few. I’ve learned a lot, but what I’ve noticed is that larp costumes around the globe are lacking.
I’ve been larping for about 12 years and seen a lot of change in the groups I have been involved with. Games have come and gone, players come and go but the hobby here is growing. In recent years the annual LARP convention Chimera I attend has grown from 50 people to ~160 people. It was filmed in 2009 and the hobby was portrayed in a fair but somewhat dorky light. And one of the big changes I have seen has been in the line of costume quality and effort put into immersive settings. And not by just the few. As a community. We’re not very big in terms of members, there are maybe 250-400 of us throughout New Zealand; with most concentrated in Auckland, some in Wellington and the others here and there across the country.
My Larp Story
Twelve years ago I was at University, the game was what I will refer to as an “old school” boffer type fantasy larp with fairly low costume standards, cheap to join, cheap to costume and at the time boffer was the only larp weapon one could get your hands on. In its heyday this larp had 30+ odd regular participants. A few dedicated people had home made chainmail and good quality costume, some had scalemail made from spray painted lino (linoleum or vinyl flooring), some with studded leatherette. There was even a chainmail bikini or two.For the bulk of us however did not have quality gear… at least not to begin with. We were encouraged to avoid jeans and white sneakers but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It did. Every game.
For the most part larp costumes at an event, meant a cheap tunic (borrowed from the gear pool) over street clothes with duct tape boffer weapons. As time went on a number of us saw the value of investing in better costume. I had good quality tunics and puffy shirts made for me, I made some studded leatherette, invested in some WWII leather gator’s to add to my black shoes. But sadly for most, it still meant street clothes under tunics or a cloak.
Then, we met some new larpers who had had experience with larp from outside our area, some from overseas.
They had made camp map foam platemail and flattened boffers… one had a latex shield from the UK. One even had a foam latex katana… holy crap, a sword that looked like a sword. And then we met the Auckland crowd who had come to check out larp in Hamilton. They had leather arming jackets, hardened leather bracers, chainmail, Excalibur foam latex weapons (all of them). Costumes were layered. Detailed. And they talked about this game Mordavia which ran over a weekend and had 50 odd participants.
I was shocked. My costume, while above average before was fairly mediocre in comparison to these newcomers. Apparently this was fairly common outside of Hamilton. And more, they encouraged good costume (and good rolepaying too) with XP bonuses, what you wore literally giving you an edge as time went on. Now admittedly it took awhile for this to all sink in. Initially our group was opposed to some of these new ideas… foam latex weapons couldn’t thrust and different rule systems clashed with what we knew and trusted.
But a couple of us were drawn to this bunch of Aucklanders, to nzLARPs and to their community forum.There were personality clashes at first, their larp was quite different from our own and the new concepts were somewhat at odds (or just different) from what we thought of as canon.
Larps that were doing it right
And then came Saint Wolfgangs Vampire Hunters and had the following blurb “St. Wolfgang’s Vampire Hunters is a live action roleplaying game (larp) where the players take the roles of the members of a secret order within the Catholic Church dedicated the fighting the undead threat in 13th century Europe. St. Wolfgang’s is an immersive larp, where all participants are in costume and remain in character for the duration of the event. Combat is represented with hit points and latex boffer weapons. Magic is represented through roleplayed ritual and in-character calls.
Player characters (PCs) play one character for the entire weekend, unless that character dies in which case the player may make a new character and enter play once more, or they can join the crew. The crew, also called NPCs, play an assortment of characters and monsters throughout the weekend under the direction of the Game Masters (GM). In St. Wolfgang’s, the crew generally play vampires and other evil creatures, but not always.
St. Wolfgang’s runs weekend events which last from the Friday evening until early Sunday afternoon, with aim of creating an immersive weekend long adventure in a fictional reality. The events are run at Auckland scout camps.” Woah! And there were pictures. And neat costume. And cool weapons.
I was convinced. I was going. I made and purchased new costume based on what I had seen, purchased foam latex weapons from our local importer Ryan, made my character (all 9 pages of backstory) and I was ready to go.
My first game was Seven Falls in May 2008. Darnon and Ragnall joined the fray. We were welcomed with open arms. We had a blast. We hunted vampires through the night and from there on in I became a member of the nzlarps community. They were here to promote larp and make the experience the best it could be for it’s members. It funded larps, it helped people get better kit, members who sewed, who armoured, who made weapons. And peoples got better each game. Not only were we inspired by other people’s kit but improving it made you just that little bit more badass.
And then there was Chimera larp convention. Which I started attending in 2008. It has grown from 50 odd participants to about the ~160 mark… so big that this year organisers split the big flagship larp into 2 identical streams. With prizes on the go for best roleplayer and best costume in each round and big rewards all around, costuming improved. Not all of course, some didn’t really care or did not have the means and some grumbled that prizes went to the most creative or the loudest.
But the end effect (in my eyes) was that the community was coming to embrace awesome costuming. White sneakers and blue jeans all but disappeared… if a player lacked some costume then they would often have several offers, for clothing, for armour and for weapons. Groups within nzlarps would do costume days, make weapons, shields etc., some for themselves but often for the nzlarps gear pool. And new people quickly go from little kit to decent fairly quickly.
Legend of the Seeker took costuming to the next level
The next thing that boosted our levels of costume was Legend of the Seeker. Or rather, the end of the Legend of the Seeker and the resulting prop and costume sales. For us, it was a bit of a bonanza for larp.
We suddenly have people turning up in these awesome TV ready kit. And a large number of people got their hands on some. And so eventually did the nzlarps gear shed… never before had we been able to create an entire unit of mailed NPC guards in identical kit not borrowed from peoples personal supply.
State of New Zealand Larps now
Of course all of NZ is not the same, Hamilton still lags a bit. My old University larp is largely dispersed. Numbers of larpers are quite low here, though we do have some Aucklanders who come down when Knightshade larp runs (about 6 monthly), there is some WOD activity around as well and I believe there is an Orcball league (aka Troll ball – touch rugby with swords).
Other centres are growing however, with Wellington having become a branch of nzlarps of recent years and running their own conventions regularly and other cities slowly gaining impetus.
And with the fantasy lovers release of the Hobbit I this year, nzlarps, our little community here in Middle Earth has never looked better. Maybe not quite of Mythodea or Drachenfest greatness but certainly on the up!
So good for us, yeah?
Well the purpose of this article was to share our experiences with the rest of the world, how to come from low budget and low costume games to bigger budget and better costumes and really great larp!
So costume standards are all about the culture and commitment of the community, so how do you change your group’s culture? Below are a few ideas.
I have seen rewards such as bonus HP’s for good costume to additional XP given for those who have put effort in. These are both fine in their own way, though even with a small number of players, the effort taken in judging average, good and awesome costumes can be quite taxing.
Reward alone will help but it isn’t the answer. You also need some clear instruction on what the game would like to see for example (for fantasy): Avoid white or overtly modern footwear, avoid modern patterned or printed t-shirts, avoid blue jeans. And you need some illustration of what basic costuming might look like and how that might be achieved.
The role of community is important in raising the level of costuming. NZlarps is lucky enough to have a busy forum, www.diatribe.co.nz in which members of the community (not just nzlarps members) post pictures, share ideas and local artisans sell their wares. And following games, people share their experiences, the high’s and low’s, the costumes and role players who really stood out.
More than this, nzlarps (as a society) exists to promote larp through helping new (and existing) GM’s to set up and run their own larps, to market and expand existing ones. New games can exist as projects (owned by nzlarps) or as affiliates (supported by nzlarps), giving access to the nzlarps gear pool and in the case of projects actually providing the funding to help make sure games get run. (Editor’s Note: The big idea here is to see larps work together share gear, experiences and ideas to make larp better. Instead of being silos working alone.)
The break down
One report I have seen (from the UK) suggests that larp groups who remain quite isolated and protective of their player bases, not encouraging mingling with other larps, and encouraging players to remain through low character death rates are quite counter intuitive. This is typically coupled with low costume requirement and boffer only weapon standards in an attempt to kep costuming cheap and accessible to the masses.
These groups seem to get to a critical mass (someone gets a different idea and wants change) and then break away groups form, which sadly will often follow the same model as the parent larp before collapsing or following the same boom and bust growth pattern…Rather than encouraging growth this model leads to shrinkage of overall numbers as players become disengaged with the hobby as parent groups disintegrate.
I believe this has happened to my first larp in University. The parent group remained while over time the splinter groups simply drifted into nothingness before it slowly dwindled into slumber itself.
I have been accused of destroying larp in this fashion when I started Knightshade Realms in 2008, a larp which now runs infrequently due to other limitations (like starting a family, working full time etc.) despite the nzlarps backing.
What I’ve Learned about better Larp Costumes
In light of these experiences I see the evolution of larp as needing a few critical features:
- Reward– larp needs to be rewarding to those that put in extra effort. Initially perhaps from a mechanic like bonus XP but as the culture of improvement grows the best reward comes eventually from the accolades of the community involved.
- Community – larp grows better where there is a community who supports variety and puts a lot of effort into making the game experience better for all involved, from organisers, to crew (NPC’s) and to the players. The community must exist to help everyone larp. It has to serve larp and not itself, so the membership of any ruling body must remain impartial from individual concerns. The benefits of a political body of any such organisation can be a 2 edged sword, so a committee structure with democratic structure will over time prove to be the best… as long as the desire to stay true to the charter remains uncorrupted. The community must be inclusive and welcoming and diverse.
- Forums– These are a great idea, though beware the troll, as their malicious comments can do real and lasting harm to the whole. From the woodwork will come artisans, craftspeople, makeup people, seams-people. They will share their ideas, time, expertise and as a whole everyone will benefit. With these factors (and others) established, there is no reason that larp can’t flourish.
- Last of all better Costuming and Immersion is it’s own reward.
All of us come to larping for the experience of roleplaying in a different world, with different experiences than we can have in our own lives while having a lot of fun. To this end increasing the quality of costume and immersion is its own reward.
When you see a player with jeans on and a basic tunic over the top of a plain shirt like described above it can easily distract from the experience, your attention is turned away from the fictional world you are currently in. On the other side of the coin though when you see someone has put time and effort into a costume and they really look like something from another world, another universe then the best roleplaying naturally flows.
An increasing in costuming and immersion in a community is a slow process as people start to see the roleplaying benefits in the games they attend. As the New Zealand community stands now a lot of members will help others create and design immersive costume so they bring this great roleplaying feeling in with them.
Have other suggestions? How do you think costuming and immersive standards can be raised in larp?
Jared is a self proclaimed Kiwi family guy with a house full of pets and children. He’s a LARPer, D&Der, occasional PC gamer and reader of good fantasy books. You can follow him on Twitter.