I recently read Aaron Vanek’s Cooler than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing. It is a short essay on larp, mostly from an American point-of-view. I found the text not only interesting but valuable; there are few descriptions of North American larping out there. The text is aimed at a laymen and novices, but also at experienced larpers who might not be aware of the cornucopia of different types of larp available in the world.

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I found the text very accessible. Vanek is good at communicating even complex ideas. I especially liked Vanek’s definition of larp. He has three defining criteria (“pillars”), basically the rule of first person audience, the rule of performative or representative action, and the rule of constant iterative definition of the diegesis. The definition is not analytically sound (for example rituals and formal dinner parties are larps according to it), but it has communicative power. Also, the more definitions there are out there, the more apparent it will be that after a certain point arguing about a definition becomes a matter of aesthetic preference.

That said, I disliked Vanek’s tendency to change certain key terminology (e.g. magic circle is now the bubble) as if feels like unnecessary dumbing down. (Still, changing magic circle into “the bubble” is similar to what Thomas de Zengotita did when he used “blob” instead of postmodernism. The difference is that de Zengotita has a precise reason and points it out.)

I found Vanek extensive description about narration very interesting. It seems that American larps use narration during games (quite rare in the Nordics)? Do game masters just hover there in the midst of action while the game is played? Do they directly interfere? Another cultural difference is pointed out by the following passage where the author explains what a larp looks like:

In larp, a player-character walks into a hotel room and decides to open an adjoining door and stroll through. In their mind, and the minds of everyone else around them, they just stepped out of the starship’s airlock without a spacesuit. Someone else may or may not try to save them. A GM might pour a bucket of ice water over the person to simulate the effect of outer space on unprotected flesh.

If this is indeed a stereotypical larp, then the North American and Nordic larps are quite different beasts. In the Nordics in a stereotypical game the playing area would be scenographed to look as much like the diegetic setting as possible, props would be as authentic seeming as possible and people would dress up as their characters as well as they can. Thus the door-that-is-an-airlock would look like one (even if it were built from styrofoam and cardboard painted silver). One of the strongest design ideals in the Nordics is the 360 degree illusion; games strive for indexical or at the very least iconic representation – symbolic representation is frowned upon – expect if that is whole as in Luminescence (room filled with flour representing cancer ward).

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I was not impressed by the way Vanek gave advice as to how games should be constructed. This did not happen much, but an example of this is: “Active duty police officers and working emergency medical personnel, for example, should not ever be considered part of the larp world.” I cannot know if I agree with this blanket statement as the author does not explain his reasoning. We have written about the same subject in the ethics chapter in Pervasive Games and shied away from such overarching statements. The author is clearly worried about safety, which I understand and sympathize, but as he does not unpack the idea behind this statement I do not know what his reasoning is exactly.

I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read about the closest relatives of larp: theater and table-top RPG. The author states that “Theater also includes performance art”. Now I agree with this statement 100%. However, people who work in theater and in performance art do not. For them these two traditions are very, very different (and historically they are). It is just from the point of view of role-playing games that one can see that they are pretty much one thing; immediate representing for a live audience. Even if I often make this generalization myself, it is a little unfair to expect non-role-players to differentiate between fantasy boffer larps and more artistic works, if we do not go through the trouble of differentiating between theater and performance art.

Vanek’s agenda is that of spreading the gospel of larp. He believes that it is an important emerging form of art that should become mainstream. At the end of the document he outlines the next steps. One of them is national (US) regulation:

To further the art, we need standards, ratings, and possibly even regulation. This won’t kill larp, for there will always be renegades that expand the craft by ingeniously breaking the standards. However, without something to react against, chaos reigns, and few groups, or the art as a whole, can progress.

He also identifies one of the major obstacles: “However, one thing that seems to be lacking in many larp groups is a desire to popularize the art form.” I’m not sure where I stand on this issue. Role-players historically have been divided to thousands of tiny groups. Organizing these groups under one or even a few umbrellas is quite difficult which means that it is impossible to “speak for the whole hobby”. And that is a good thing, it keeps things fresh and interesting. Still, it is possible to represent a small portion of the people involved – and this approach has had good results in the Nordic countries.

All in all I find Cooler than You Think interesting and recommend it to anyone interested in finding how they do things on the other side of the pond. Also, I love the fact that someone has started to write for an audience in North America. Too long has all discourse on role-playing been restricted to newsgroups, webforums and other venues where good ideas are buried under huge numbers of endless threads. I hope Vanek inspires others to follow in his footsteps – even and especially if they disagree with the content.

Images from the essay, by Jennifer Albright.