5 Reasons Why Realism isn’t important in a LARP

5 Reasons Why Realism isn’t important in a LARP

JAN 12, 2018 by Bart Brizee, Owner of LARP Box

Look, I love me some high production values in larps. I love making costumes, I love decorating scenes and locations to look cinematic, and I tend to prefer LARPs with simpler rulesets. None of these things actually make a larp “realistic”. We’ve been using the wrong words to describe what we really want from larps, because most people don’t really want a realistic LARP, we want one that looks and feels like the media we consume. Most of the points I’m going to make are in relation to medieval fantasy larps, but are certainly applicable to other genres as well.

1. Consistency, not production value, is more important for immersion. 

Similar to how a person breaking character can ruin a scene, if your setting isn’t consistent it can have elements that break immersion. If you’re in a high production game and can see multiple cars parked right next to the tents, all that work put into costuming and scenery goes out the window because the scene has been interrupted by something that completely does not belong.

Similarly, a game that is mostly players in tabards and duct tape swords can be very immersive, but a player or NPC dressed in a cinematic costume sticks out and will look out of place in the setting. Take “Boxwars ” in Australia, they’re all dressed in cardboard but look AWESOME, but if you walk into that game in your full historical medieval knight kit, its going to look super out of place and detract from the game as a whole.


2. Accessibility 

Realistic combat means only large, strong males are going to have fun. This is something that was difficult for me early on to understand, and it’s something that I see new larpers and GMs struggle with all the time. I’m not a big guy, but I’m reasonably athletic and spent some time in the military, so my views are always a little biased and I have to check myself frequently. I tend to automatically favor rules that favor athleticism and competitiveness but might not be accessible to all of my friends. And I check those biases because I want my friends to have fun too.

With the exception of a very small minority, combat systems that favor physical size and strength are far more accessible to larger, stronger people. Real combat is brutal; it involves grappling, pushing, takedowns, and other techniques that leaves many women and smaller men at a disadvantage that would take exceptional skill to overcome. There are some games that have rule systems that try to be more “realistic” such as HEMA, SCA, ACL ,and others, but even these can be simply seen as  high impact sports. Rules of balancing, sportsmanship, and fair play are all in place in most combat systems because, at the end of the day we’re not actually trying to hurt each other.

Even low-complexity LARP rule systems that claim “realism” are not in any way realistic. There is nothing realistic about hitting plate armor with a sword and doing any kind of damage to the player underneath, more on armor later on.

A realistic historical setting automatically puts players that are at a physical disadvantage in a position that is not fun. There are instances where the game runner might want to simulate a realistic setting, but they should ask themselves why this is important to them, and what kind of players their design is likely to attract, and more importantly, what type of players their design is likely to exclude.

There is also the argument that more “realistic” settings require a higher production value in costumes, and this affects the accessibility for those without the resources able to buy costumes for this setting. While this can be sometimes true (such as a game that requires armor) most of the great costumes I’ve seen are home made. So those with any combination of time, money, talent/skill can and do make some great costumes. Without two of those three things, chances are you wont be able to acquire a truly impressive costume. The financials and resources needed for great costumes could be an entire other blog post. Suffice to say, games with higher production values tend to favor those of higher socioeconomic status or those with very flexible work schedules. I fit into the latter category, I know i can carve out a day to work on a costume, a privilege not afforded to those with a 9-5 job.


3. Real life involves a lot of terrible stuff.

Sexism, racism, taxes, and lack of personal hygiene are all terrible stuff. Ok…some are more terrible than others, obviously. All are things that don’t make a game more fun and could ruin the game for many.

Sure it might be “realistic” for a king to pass down the crown to the oldest male heir, but why would you need to do that in a LARP? We’re already not being historically accurate, and history had a lot of terrible stuff in it. Why not imagine a fantasy world without sexism or racism? Many larpers use their games as a form of escapism to get away from these exact things. This isn’t to say that games made to specifically explore these topics are not valid, only that games that have them only as setting flavor are using a lazy, outdated approach to creating a fantasy world.

Look I love me some Game of Thrones, but if I’m going to play a Game of Thrones themed larp game you’d better bet I wouldn’t want there to be sexism and sexual assault present in the game. And if you think that those aspects are essential for creating a vibrant believable world, you’re probably missing the point of those stories. We get to create whatever we want in a LARP setting, why restrict ourselves to the same problems our society has?

On a side note, sure it would be super realistic to only use bucket for a bathroom and empty it into the street, but there’s reasons why we shouldn’t do that anymore; it’s dangerous, toxic and ruins everyone’s day, kinda like sexism.


4. Historical accuracy goes out the window in LARPs

I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating. Little to nothing about larps are historically accurate, but that’s also just fine.  Look we’re not actually trying to kill each other in a larp, we’re playing a game, so why not just treat it like one? Here’s some great examples of things that we think are historical, but never existed (or at least not much)

  • Leather Armor– Seriously, it’s not a thing, leather was used to make straps, or hold up metal plates, or as a substitute for metal plates. Leather armor, and especially studded leather armor that is using in mosts larps, like the kinds we sell are not historically accurate at all, they don’t provide much in the way of protection from, well, anything. The leather armor trope is basically a hold over from fantasy novels and Dungeons and Dragons. And look, I’m not a hater, keep rockin your leather armor (and I will too, more than half of my armor is leather) but don’t pretend it’s realistic.
    • PS studs don’t do anything to make leather armor tougher either.
  • Canvas armor, or thick gambesons, are historically as good or better than chainmail, but often are not even counted as armor in larps. Seriously though, some types of european cloth armor were extremely effective. Don’t believe me? Just look on Youtube and you’ll see lots of historical gambeson tests against arrows, spears, swords etc. The ones that fail these tests are usually modern costume padded armor, which is mostly for show, not function, which brings me to:
  • Plate armor. Your 18 or 20 gauge plate will not stop much. But historical plate will stop almost everything,  sometimes even bullets (though probably not from modern firearms). There is no amount of hacking with a sword that is going to get through a historical great helm, and that would make for a pretty un-fun larp. Plate armor is also really, really heavy, but since most of us use foam weapons for Larp we don’t need it to be made from historically accurate material.
  • Ring belts are not a real thing, they were basically invented by US SCA and renn fair folks. BUT they do look sweet, little know real fake fact, the more belts you have, the more powerful you are
  • 1000+ years of character types in one setting. Vikings didn’t live in the same period as knights. In most larps we have weapons, armor, and etc., that run the gambit between 1 AD and 1600 AD, but because they fit the genre of the game, it doesn’t really matter. We hand wave these things because its almost impossible to get 100 (or even 20) players to adhere to one specific setting or era. Even the SCA, whose members pride themselves on historical accuracy, has a huge range of historical periods represented. 


5. Cinematic not Realistic

So maybe when we say we want “realism” in larp, what we really mean is that we want our  games to look and feel like our favorite movies, TV shows, and video games. There is very little that is realistic about the world of The Lord of the Rings, but it is a great cinematic experience and it’s a setting perfect for a larp. We want our fights to feel and look cinematic, but we don’t actually want to be body slammed into the ground.  Above all, we want our games to be fun and immersive, and sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that painstaking attention to realism can take the place of good game design.

I was inspired to write this piece after playing a game that touted itself as both realistic and cinematic. The rules, setting, and culture of the game were based on what the game designers felt would be most realistic, not necessarily what would make for the best game experience. They made some great choices, but they also made some rookie mistakes that come from being frustrated with games that didn’t meet their bar for realism, Their great choices could not make up for their choices that valued “realism” over fun. Had I been in their position, and had the same level of experience I would have probably made the same mistakes, but having made some of those mistakes in the past I have the benefit of experience, and being friends with some professionals that are much better at game running than I. Larp is inherently a collaborative enterprise, and learning to listen to others -and especially the needs of others- is important.

There is no one perfect solution, but let’s start by asking ourselves why and when realism is  important to us. And when we think of realism, are we really thinking of just a specific look and feel that might come from films or games. Are we making choices that might exclude our friends, and are those choices based on things that make the game more fun for all.