Live-action role play is more than foam swords and pretend spells. “We’re teaching values like respect, but from a non-authoritative point of view,” says James Frishkoff. “We’re creating space for young people to feel the community bond that is increasingly hard to find in modern society.”
“Honestly, I’ve never had to put this into words,” says Will Feldan. “It’s an experience. It’s hard to describe unless you do it.”
The average passerby at Chamounix Youth Hostel in Fairmount Park might say that Feldon and his pals are whacking each other with foam weapons. While that is the reality of it, that passerby might not understand that everyone involved here, in their minds, is embroiled in a bloody battle.
This is the world of live-action role play, or LARP, as it is better known.
“No, not like ‘Role Models,'” says Feldon, referring to the 2008 movie with Paul Rudd, Sean William Scott and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. That’s a big misconception among people who have seen the movie, which depicts LARPers as total dweebs, but haven’t witnessed LARP in person.
“LARPing comes from Dungeons & Dragons and old tabletop roleplaying,” says Feldan. That is to say, it’s an imagined world of heroes and villains, monsters and magic. “That was always something maladjusted nerds did in their moms’ basements. I think that’s still a thing a lot of people think of when they think of this.”
Feldon is a member of Uncharted Horizons, a Philadelphia LARP community that hosts games every Saturday, and large-scale, more widely attended events once a season. Most of Uncharted Horizons management is made up of college students, but the group is open to anyone as young as 8 years old.
LARP is more than foam swords and pretend spells, says James Frishkoff, Uncharted Horizons’ assistant director and a Drexel University student. He’s been LARPing with this group for nine years. He says it’s an elevated mode of play, with a focus on community, education and creative exploration.
“We’re teaching values like respect, but from a non-authoritative point of view,” says Frishkoff. “We’re creating space for young people to feel the community bond that is increasingly hard to find in modern society.”
A lot of work goes into putting these games together, says Frishkoff — from booking a venue to designing and crafting the props, from scripting the game’s story to setting the rules. And it takes a medieval village to bring it together.
Stephen Crissey is Uncharted Horizons’ prop master. He is responsible for designing realistic-looking weapons and props with safe materials — mainly coach foam and a sturdy polyethylene foam used in shipping. “We send [the props] through rigorous play-safe testings,” says Crissey. “We have a saying: If you’re not willing to get hit with the weapon yourself, you shouldn’t be using it on anybody else.”
Lately, he’s been trying to perfect play-safe throwing stars for LARPers who like to play stealthy ninja-like characters.
“It’s very rewarding with LARPing to be able to take your creativity and give it life,” he says. That mentality — breathing life into a world created by a collective consciousness — carries through to every component of LARP.
Each game follows a written script, with main characters, non-essential characters, and scripted deaths. Improvisation is encouraged, as long as the pre-determined ending doesn’t change. Imaginations mesh into one story of epic and fantastic proportions. As Uncharted Horizons staffer Grant Fisher explains, everyone understands that if one person decides to compromise the script, the entire game falls apart.
The script is a collaborative effort, and everyone is invited to contribute. Frishkoff and staff gather up the submissions and smooth the story over with location and props in mind. Everyone fills out a character survey, which Uncharted Horizons management use to cast them in their roles. And believe it or not, most LARPers are completely cool with being cast as a character who dies.
For something that’s supposed to be fun, LARP is rather … democratic. These LARPers are writing, directing and acting in their own plays. In its own way, Uncharted Horizons is a whole community of little Kenneth Branaghs.
Warriors, mages and beasts
For LARPers who prefer to use their imagination as a weapon over a foam sword, there are three classes of magic-user, explains Felix Schafroth-Doty, age 14. “There’s the mage, who uses offensive magic like fireballs. There’s the cleric, a magical healer with abilities to protect and heal other people. Then there are alchemists, who aren’t really magicians, but they have potions.”
The kind of magic you use depends on how the story is written. “Say we’re fighting in the woods against orcs. Most of the time that will include all three of them,” Schafroth-Doty says.
Felix’s sister Olivia, 9, has been LARPing for a little over a year and almost never misses a game. “Unless it’s like a once in a lifetime thing, like a Phillies game or something,” she says.
LARP is a male-dominated hobby, but that doesn’t stop Olivia and her friend Lillian Marcoccia, 12, from joining in the fun. “I mean, it doesn’t matter,” Olivia says, “because everyone treats everyone equal here.”
So why don’t more girls LARP?
“I guess some girls just like to do girly things,” Marcoccia says.
“I think they’re either embarrassed that they do it, or they’re too girly — like, dressing up like a princess,” adds Olivia.
From roleplay to reality
In its own way, LARP is a structured society of free-thinkers. These kids are able to jump into the skin of a character and construct a personality on the spot. Kids can, as a community, retreat completely into their deepest imaginations, but they’re still following a regimented agenda throughout the game.
The argument that LARP is just a form of escapism, that LARPers are running away from real-world problems, is only half-true. It is a temporary solace, a world where harsh prejudice and antipathy — particularly among most kids their ages — just don’t exist. And when the day is through, they go back to their lives as regular kids. LARP is, by and large, therapeutic.
“You’re active, it makes you feel good, you’re outside, and it’s nice,” says Lillian. “And you get to be with other people who all share common things like fantasy and LARP.”
The world of LARP is one of creativity, community and healing — with or without clerics. Hitting other people with foam swords can be healthy. Just ask Feldan.
“I’ve definitely gotten a lot of exercise. I’ve become better with dealing with people,” he confesses. “I used to have some pretty bad social issues and stuff. I have a learning disability. This has really helped me work on social cues.”
Still, LARP has an image problem. “We’ve had kids tell us they hate feeling embarrassed because of this,” confesses Frishkoff. Then a mischievous spark glistens in his eyes as he says, “We’re not a cult. We will not steal your childrens’ organs.”
That is, if your children aren’t orcs.
WHYY’s Laura Benshoff produced the audio segment above.