If you go down to the woods today…

Publication: About Time

…then the big surprise you get could well be lurking in a bush with a sword. We look at live action roleplaying in the Norwich area.

Summer 1991

Living Legends LARP
Living Legends LARP

You may already have come across live action role playing – LARP – without realising it. You’re out in the woods one Sunday when suddenly figures in Robin Hood costumes crash out of the bushes yelling fearsome war cries. For a while all is chaos and noise as these people lay into each other with dangerous looking weapons. When things calm down half are lying dead, but the wounds are feigned and they get up and move on. Nobody’s hurt; the swords are made from padded foam. It’s like watching an adventure film being made – except there is no camera or film crew.

LARP is a sport that has developed from paper based games like Dungeons and Dragons™ and works because everyone – at some time – has wanted to be someone else. Every film Arnie has ever made works on the same principal. The big difference of course is that by role-playing the hero you are the star of the show.

In tabletop roleplaying you roll dice to establish qualities like strength and agility. There are rules to establish skills and abilities but the player has complete freedom to create the character’s personality and make it something more than a name and a lot of numbers. They live in a different world, which gives you the chance to play anything from a saint to a complete bastard. The script for the adventure is drawn up by a referee but the outcome of any situation cooked up is down to the player-characters. And it doesn’t always go to plan; the bad-tempered axe-wielding goblin that you want to behead will probably have other ideas. Tell the referee what you want to do and they adjudicate the result. Now, imagine acting it out for ‘real’ and you have live action role playing.

Overland LARP: Bill Ray, Jerry Ferley and Toby Batch
Overland LARP: Bill Ray, Jerry Ferley and Toby Batch

Two groups operate in the Norwich area: Overland has been running for nine years and uses Mousehold Heath. Living Legend is one and a half years old and adventures off the Ipswich Road. Both groups have about 20 regulars, ranging in age from 16 to 34. There is a friendly rivalry between the two systems that arises from the their different approaches to the sport; players from both have adventured with the other group and enjoyed themselves, but returned convinced that their way is best.

Andrew Bartram of Living Legend said “The main aim of the group is roleplaying, rather than the hack and slash that we’ve encountered with other systems; there, when a party of eight goes out, two will come back alive. The survivors had a good time because they were up against heavy challenges but the other six aren’t so happy. We try to get it the other way around – when eight go out we expect a maximum of two deaths. People get more enjoyment from the roleplaying and from progressing their characters to a higher level.”

In Overland, characters tend to die quicker; to some people this is frustrating, but Jerry Ferley defended it; “The whole thing’s supposed to be a challenge – what’s the point of doing it if you know you’re going to survive? It needs some possibility of failure in order to be worth doing. If you succeed by good roleplaying that’s fine, but if it’s written that you’re going to survive the whole thing degenerates into mutual backslapping.”

The two groups offer different attractions but both provide the chance to leave behind your worries and enter a simpler world where magic rules and a nine to five grind just doesn’t figure.

We asked players from both groups why they did it. Here are a selection of the answers:

Andy Rowe, Overland:
Because we’re silly and there’s nothing better to do on a Sunday? It’s great for drawing attention to yourself, so Leos are basically laughing.
Sean Hills, Living Legends:
You get to do things that you wouldn’t normally do, like hit someone with a sword. You get to go out of reality and go partly into fantasy.
Christine Moynihan, Overland:
It’s a question of power – power and survival. My character allows out a nasty side of my personality without people thinking I’m a bitch. It’s male dominated, but only because roleplaying attracts more men in general. All the women I know who’ve been have really enjoyed it.
Andrew Carter, Living Legends:
My character’s called Snotgrut the Ork. I’ve had him for about a year now. Everyone enjoys him and he’s a good scout. I like goblinoids and if I get the chance I’ll usually play one. I might as well – no-one else will.
James Lavers, Overland:
I’ve been playing for about three weeks now. It’s something different, It’s just fun to get away from real life, to enter a different world and be apart from the other one.
Shelley Chopping, Living Legends:
A lot of passers-by come here regularly, so they get used to us and say ‘good morning’, and we step to one side to let them through. I play a healer who wanders around trying to interest people in what she does. A sort of fantasy Jehova’s Witness, really.