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The Great Pretenders
You Won't Believe What These Sane People Do For Fun. It's . . . Unreal.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 14 1996; Page F01
The Washington Post
The vampires are hanging out at their favorite diner, eating french fries with too much ketchup and trying hard to find some mystery in a suburban summer night. The vampires flirt and laugh and smoke Marlboro Lights
as they talk about politics, power, immortality and sucking the lifeblood from mere mortals. This is Washington, after all.
For Gus Knapp, resplendent in black frock coat and spats, this is a fine way to pass a Wednesday evening. The 39-year-old museum technician lives with his mother in a lovely old mansion and spends his workday cataloguing fossils at the Smithsonian. He collects stamps and plays the bagpipe. He thinks of his life as pleasantly dull. Except for this. This is edgy. This is exciting.The other vampires nod in agreement.
Vampire, pirate, alien, spy. Werewolf, robber baron, Muppet, nun. Casablanca
one weekend, Babylon
the next. On any given night, and virtually every weekend during the summer peak, thousands of adults across the country are playing make-believe in cheap hotels, empty warehouses, private homes and isolated woods. In elaborate period dress or ordinary street clothes, they portray characters in scriptless fantasies that can run for a few hours or several years. Known as live-action role-playing
, or larping
, the hobby draws heavily from the ranks of bureaucrats, computer wonks and bored youths -- which makes this area prime territory in the world according to larp. There are conventions, workshops, fan clubs, a quar-terly journal and game reviews. The Interactive Literature
, a larp clearinghouse based in Merrifield, has had up to 2,000 names on its mailing list and figures 400 people form the core of active players in the region.
In truth, the whole phenomenon began nearly 20 years ago when Dungeons & Dragons
was the hot new fad, turning campus geeks into netherworld creatures with special powers and, critics warned, a somewhat slippery grasp of reality. The game drew a lot of bad press after being linked to some teen suicides, and fundamentalists decried it as a satanic tool. But the trend seemed to pass, the panic subsided and the kids who were playing it grew up and abandoned their fantasy worlds.
Dirk Parham got the wig this time. It's a wonderful wig, tight black ringlets
cascading halfway down his back. His wife, Moira, will need it to play a barmaid on
an imaginary riverboat cruise later, but for now, the wig belongs to the mad French
pirate-hunter, "La Rouge." Parham flips the ringlets over his shoulder and adjusts
his fake mustache. He rented a swashbuckler's costume this time -- he had to put
down a $100 deposit on the thing, but it was worth it for the tailored crimson jacket
and the lace-cuffed blouse beneath it. Poor Moira is a Spanish nun, drab in a brown
The Fort Meade, Md., couple has been larping since 1992, when Dirk debuted as a
mad vivisectionist in a sci-fi game and was so excited that Moira had to sample live-
action too, so she played Grover in "Murder on Sesame Street." Now their closets are
jam-packed with their costumes and props -- the $150 cowboy tux Dirk splurged on,
all the padded weapons they use to wallop other players in medieval troll wars, the
alien outfits and ball gowns. This summer, Dirk, who is 31, and Moira, who is 28,
have gone larping nearly every weekend, all weekend. It is, asserts Dirk, "the bulk of
our social life, and our permanent hobby." Adds Moira: "I hope we never stop doing
Now they join 40 others in the conference room of the Day's Inn in Timonium, Md.,
the rented site for a 17th-century fantasy game called Port Royal, set in the
tumultuous Jamaican capital of the era. Port Royal begins on Friday night and runs
until noon Sunday, with the more zealous characters playing straight through,
including the five ringers from an improv group called the Role- Playing Machine,
which supplies extras to fantasy games in exchange for room and board.
The RPM offers dial-a-character service -- the governor orders footmen for tonight's
masquerade ball; the captain needs two drunk sailors to fire the overturned chairs
serving as cannons.
Like most of the games being produced these days, Port Royal was created on a
home computer by larpers who, it turns out on opening night, haven't quite finished
yet. Already the organizers look dazed from the stress and lack of sleep. Fantasy can
be such hell.
David Wood, pasty and intense, prefers to run games rather than play
them, "because I at least have the illusion of control." He and three friends spent a
year creating Port Royal, but the real story will be told by the players as they go
along. No one could predict that the nun would rip off her clothes and offer the key
to her chastity belt to an aristocrat whose rebuff would cause her to commit suicide.
Or that the mayor's shrewish wife would suddenly disappear. Or that the madame
would fly into such a snit when shot by El Diablo that it would take four organizers,
a painful public apology and promises of mob retribution to keep her from quitting
All of these melodramas captivate Ellen Endress, a 30-year-old Greenbelt lawyer
who has been larping since 1988."No one wins the game," she says. "You all come
together to form a consensus reality. . . . When I'm gaming, I don't remember I'm a
public defender. I don't remember financial difficulties I'm having. I'm in the world
they created and I don't surface again till Sunday afternoon."
Wood, a 30-year-old data processor from Grasonville, Md., doesn't watch his
fantasy world take shape. He stays in his room feverishly "writing up extra
documents we needed." His imagination leaves a paper trail -- some 200 pages of
character description, about 160 pages of last-minute developments for some key
players, plus hundreds of"item cards" describing each and every imaginary prop in
the game. Paper sharks, paper kegs of rum, paper pistols. Then there's the rule book.
Twenty-three pages of rules, many of them, the players would ultimately decide,
incomprehensible and easily ignored.
Still, the larpers meticulously fold all these pieces of paper into little squares and
carry them at all times. They need this information. They welcome these instructions.
Of course, they do!
Because what would a fantasy world be without order?
The rules are never simple. When Doug Bischoff and some buddies first created the mythical world of Xanodria
in college, they simply invited some friends over, went
outside and ran around trying to hit each other with two-inch wooden dowels. They decided they needed some rules after someone got a concussion.
is played every three weeks on 300 borrowed acres of woods and farmland outside Allentown, Pa. Nearly 50 larpers, including a mother of two, a Jersey truck driver and, of course, Dirk and Moira Parham, pitch tents and camp out for the weekend, even sleeping in character as barbarians, zombies, goblins and medieval warriors. Now their weapons are made out of padded plumbing pipe. Now they are forbidden to hit each other in the head. Now the Xanodria
rule book is 200 pages long.
: No staking, no blood-sharing, no biting.
: No physical violence, no smoking, no alcohol.
Fantasy conflicts are all resolved with a roll of the dice, a quick game of rock-paper-scissors
, or, in the case of war games only, a well-padded, pre-approved weapon.
There is a lingua franca among larpers, as well.
-- someone who comes to a live-action game and fails to interact.
-- acronym for the "secret masters of gaming"
; to tell war stories from games.
-- player who rides roughshod over others; also munchkin
-- games allowing combat with padded weapons.
-- superhuman speed; a special skill for some vampires.
-- to ruin someone else's plot in brilliant and public fashion.
-- people who don't larp.
The first rule in any game is always the same. It is more than a rule. It is a creed, a commandment, a sacred trust
. Violating it could ruin everything. It's a very simple one.
Don't scare the mundanes
Dirk is wounded. He fell into some poison ivy in the woods of Xanodria while
battling some villagers on a troll patrol. He twisted his ankle. Back in his tent, he
pops some Aleve, wraps his swollen foot and crams it back into his boot. He can't let
the Game Masters know he's hurt or he's benched. Dirk couldn't bear that. He feels
a deep sense of obligation when he's gaming. "You are part of a production," he
explains. "You can't let the others down."Besides, if things get really bad, there are
half a dozen emergency medical technicians playing this weekend. They revived
the Lavaman who passed out from heatstroke last summer inside his thick rubber
Dirk Parham usually plays a weekend game straight through, without sleep, relying
on adrenaline and the occasional caffeine tablet to keep him going. Like so many
other larpers, Dirk cut his teeth on Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, playing the
tabletop version. He got into it after his parents were watching the evening news and
heard the report of a 16-year-old boy named Egbert missing for weeks in a steam
tunnel where he played the fantasy game with his friends. "Knowing I liked science
fiction, my parents turned to me and said, `Gee, son, that sounds like fun. Maybe you'd
enjoy that,' " Dirk recalls.
"I've pushed myself too far, sometimes, I admit it," he says with a chuckle now,
nursing his sore ankle. "A lot of people have an attitude in general that gaming is for
misanthropes or failures, and that's not the case."
Sometimes his parents chide him. You're divorcing yourself from reality, they
say. "Yeah, well," Dirk replies,"reality is unpleasant."
Xanodria has its own full-time volunteer makeup artist, a guy named Jason who
works down in the barn applying latex scars, zombie faces and such. Dirk hobbles
down the hill to change character. Moira is already there, being made up as the
ghost of the farmer's wife she played this afternoon until she killed herself. "I enjoy
challenging myself," she says. "I always try to get some character with a big problem
to solve. "
Back in the "village," volunteers are making stuffed cabbage for dinner in the
$5,000 custom tent that serves as the inn. Barbarians are sitting around picnic
tables. "No find glass," one of them grunts. "Where's the sun block?"another asks.
A handful of players gather around the campfire they've built despite the sweltering
heat. Their conversation makes sense only to them.
"I have seen water faeries, sir, when the moon is full . . . "
"I'm just suggesting mayhap there's another way. Mayhap."
"Remember, Raven, goats are power."
"Goats aren't power. A hunchback in the desert is power."
"Want some more Gatorade?"
"I like Omar. Omar is gifted in a certain area better than the camel."
The last observation makes a monk laugh Gatorade out his nose.
The Interactive Literature Foundation keeps a bank of the myriad games its people
play. "Marin County Socialites"and "Snuggle Bunny Ring-
Wraiths" and "Busstop" and, although not independently verified, a nude game in
California called "Buck Naked: Texas Ranger." Or "Lifeboat," which foundation
president Gordon Olmstead-Dean describes as an "intense" game in which 14 of his
best friends were locked inside an RV for 36 hours with the windows blacked out.
Not once, but twice. "The toilet broke both times," he recalls.
At Brinkley's Family Restaurant in Falls Church, the vampires are finishing their
french fries. Some have gone upstairs to the bar, where one of the members of the
vile sewer-dwelling clan was seen doing the electric-slide on the dance floor.
Sewerman turns out to be a Marine honor guard who does this "because it gives me
something to do besides go drinking in Georgetown every weekend."
This particular run of the vampire larp comes from a wildly popular published book
series known as The Masquerade. The players meet every other weekend at private
homes for their big games, known as grand balls, and repair to Brinkley's on
Wednesday nights for mini-games. "We have 70 people between the ages of 16 and
60,"boasts organizer and storyteller Richard Devine. The Falls
Church "system" is linked linked via Internet to similar groups in 40 other cities,
including a dozen in Brazil. What happens to a character in a clan operating out of
Washington can affect the outcome of a plot in Chicago. It also means that players
can dip into other games in their continuing characters when they travel out of town
on vacation or business.
"People do get weirded out," admits Devine, a 23-year-old designer of computer
home pages for the Department of Transportation. "If I walk up and say every two
weeks I think I'm a vampire, people don't react well." He considers
this improvisational theater and laughs at alarmists who call it a cult. Only one
person was ever thrown out of the game, and that was for saying cruel things to
some overweight players.
"I've always been introverted," Devine says. "Having red hair and being tall and thin
didn't help. I didn't really feel accepted or a part of anything till I hooked up with these
There's Michael King, a 28-year-old contractor from Centreville, and Julia Ryder, a
26-year-old administrative assistant in Manassas. There's a Mennonite minister, an
artist, Gus Knapp in his spats, and a teenager with inky black hair and pierced
everything who whines, "It's not like we go to dark alleys and torture small
animals."There's Robert Owens, a 31-year-old land contractor who left the game
bitterly after his longtime character was killed the previous weekend. "I've had
philosophical differences with the rule structures," he says. "I'm Asian American and
I wanted to play an Asian vampire and there's no room for that." He is back tonight
trying to recruit players for a new game he is starting, one where his character can
Tonight's plots involve a plan to overthrow the prince of the city and the conversion
of 24-year-old Janet James from good vampire (one with some humanity left) to bad
(overpowered by the Beast within). She has been kidnapped and taken outside by
three bad vampires under the supervision of the storyteller.
"It's a huge field," the storyteller is saying, gesturing at the parking lot. "There are
lots of trees." The traffic on Route 7 rumbles past. "Three guys are jumping her."
"Okay," one of the attacking vampires says, pausing to cadge Janet's Marlboro for a
few drags. "I brutally smash you in the head and flee. Celerity." He checks off the
word on his skill card.
"Oh, wait! Item!" Janet produces an item card representing a knife.
"I am so stabbing you!" she cries.
A game of rock, paper, scissors follows to determine who survives the battle.
"I got you this time!" one of the attackers crows.
"What are you using?" she wonders.
"Knife. Double-damage. Cutting your wrist. You fall to the ground, writhing, biting,
and I hold you down." He grinds out the Marlboro in the asphalt.
"Freak, first you brawn me, then you smoke my cig."
Character sheets are consulted, pints of blood left are calculated, points are added
and subtracted, and Janet determines that she can fight back. "I'm ferociously biting
you! Aggravated damage. You're unhealable for the night."
The ritual is over. Janet has lost her last grip on humanity. She beams proudly as
her friends congratulate her.
"Welcome to the pack, honey."
The Larp Dance
They met at an elite little seaside academy where their superiors had sent them to
master Russian. They became crypto-linguists for a superpower and roamed a tense
world cracking secret codes. It was all very exciting. Somewhere along the way,
fatefully, they fell in love. The Berlin Wall toppled, the Cold War ended, and their
lives were never quite the same.
Now Dirk Parham is an Air Force clerk and Moira, out of the service, answers
phones and helps customers at Sutton Place Gourmet. Their jobs frankly bore them.
They don't like to watch television or read the newspapers very much, either. It's
just all so depressing. They try to escape whenever they can.
Copyright 1996: The Washington Post
From: email@example.com (G. Olmstead-Dean)
Subject: Re: Wash. Post Article on LARPing
Date: 15 Jul 1996 19:30:28 GMT
Well.first, thanks to Tad for reposting the Post
Several people have e-mailed me this morning asking for my opinion and the general opinion of the ILF
In general, I'm very pleased with Tamara's article. I feel like she put a lot of work in, and tried hard to capture the flavor of Live gaming, something that *all*
of us, know is difficult to do in print.
The response I've gotten from colleagues and non-gaming friends has been overwhelmingly positive.
She seems to have picked a good circle of people to cite as examples of LARP
players, and where she gives information on their professions, it is diverse.computer engineer, curator, lawyer, military.
community in the Baltimore Washington area is a *very*
big tapestry - no one is going to capture it all.
But most of the references are positive. Reading the article, Port Royal
sounded interesting and exciting. She makes a point of highlighting that people doing this are sane.
Considering that most news coverage of LARP
has revolved around the likelyhood that most of the players are borderline psychopaths with possible criminal tendencies, I think this is a *real*
step in the right direction.
If you run events anywhere where the Post
send us a listing for the ILF Calendar
in the next two days. It is *way*
past the deadline, but this is a special event, and we want as many members of the community to share in it as possible. There have already been twelve inquiries about the article, and we expect more. We'll be sending the next Calendar
to everyone who inquires, and we want to give them as wide a range of potential chances to become involved in the IL
community as possible.
If you don't live in the Baltimore Washington area, please remember the Post
is a national paper, like the LA
and NY Times
, and probably circulates in limited numbers in your area. We're attempting to ascertain if the Post
's online news service "Digital Ink"
also carried the story.
I think that, while a point here or there may rankle in a community that has so long been accustomed to adverse publicity, in general the article presents the IL
community in a very positive light.
From: Jim Edwards-Hewitt
Subject: Re: Wash. Post Article on LARPing
Date: 15 Jul 1996 17:17:15 -0400
>We're attempting to ascertain
>if the Post's online news service "Digital Ink" also carried the story.
They do have a feedback and discussion areas.
I actually liked the article a lot. Sure, there were a couple of cheap shots, only one of which I think will be noticeable to anyone who doesn't know the people involved. But the
article emphasized repeatedly that these are activities involving adults, real people who you might find next to you at work. It made clear that they are social events. For its length, it did a good job of capturing the incredible variety of things that can go on in all of our different games.
Finally, I'll admit that the thing that just has me grinning is seeing the term "larping"
defined in the Washington Post
Editor of Metagame
, the Journal of the Interactive Literature Foundation
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