I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Cardboard Ogre: How the LARPers Were Ahead of Their Time

by Joe DeMartino
April 18, 2012

Everybody has a nerd line they just won’t cross.

My nerdery is vast and varied, mostly the result of a really good memory and an inability to do anything of consequence unless I'm multitasking. I can tell you who held the home run record before Babe Ruth (the great Roger Connor, he of the 138 career round-trippers). I can rattle off the names and brief tactical assessments of dozens of Civil War generals (most of them were idiots, but idiots with excellent facial hair). I can, if pressed, give you a comprehensive rundown of every single alien race in Mass Effect, every major political group in Dragon Age, and the psychological profiles of the faction leaders in Alpha Centauri. I spent hours on the layout of a fortress for my Dungeons and Dragons group in high school, each gnoll and bugbear lovingly placed in a way that would maximize their chances of disemboweling my friends’ characters with claws or arrows, because they’d ruined a similarly-planned encounter a week before and I was out for revenge.

Friends, I’m pretty frigging nerdy.

When I say, then, that I don’t think I could handle the barest participation in Live Action Role Playing, you know that I’m coming from a place of deep, deep nerd-dom. It’s too much.

LARPing, as it’s commonly (and somewhat unfortunately -- the abbreviation creates an awkward, unpleasantly dorky sound that does the hobby no favors) known, is something of a dividing line between the tiers of nerd. Hanging around a table, shooting the shit with your friends and occasionally rolling dice, is functionally very similar to a card game, or a night of drinking, or some other typical social event. It’s recognizable.

Putting on a cloak and prancing around a castle is somewhat less so. It requires jumping a number of increasingly daunting hurdles just to get started. You have to make the decision to take your previously basement- or living room-confined hobby out into a public space. The typical trappings of said hobby -- dice, grid-lined maps, a screen behind which your game master can secretly spin his plans to have you murdered -- are discarded in favor of physically acting out your character’s battles. If you’re really serious about the entire thing, you’re going to be in some kind of costume*.

*Do you ever wonder why LARPing is widely mocked and something like, say, dressing in costume to go to a convention is viewed by some with kind of a grudging respect? I think it’s got a lot to do with the level of effort involved. The LARPers in this documentary make do with a cloak or a staff (sometimes both a cloak AND a staff), which makes them come off as somewhat petty and small. Your average ComicCon or PAX, however, is filled with people who’ve spent an awful lot of time and effort making inch-perfect replicas of fantasy suits of armor or robot bodysuits. They look ridiculous, of course -- that’s at least partially the point -- but they also look awesome. The fact that a statistically non-insignificant number of cosplayers are very attractive women probably has a lot to do with it as well.

Doing all this takes a certain amount of courage. There’s always the risk that someone happens upon you who isn’t particularly sympathetic to your hobby, and then you’re forever on the Internet*, clad in a kilt, screaming "LIGHTNING BOLT!"  as you throw beanbags at a man dressed as a cardboard ogre. It’s a particularly brave person who goes public with his eccentricities -- even more so if those eccentricities are less charming and more compulsive.

*Note the description of said video: “No I did not film this. No I did not participate in this. No I don't know who these people are. No I have no clue how to contact them for your tv/radio/donkey show.” Even the person making fun of them is careful to distance himself -- he’s got nothing to do with those weirdos, bro.

What’s the appeal, then, if the downside seems so severe? Watch that “lightning bolt” clip again, and pay special attention to the last five seconds. After the group of LARPers slays the ogre (or puts him to sleep -- the gentleman hitting him with a staff and yelling “SLEEP!” might have gotten past his saving throw), there’s a brief pause. The camera happens upon a young woman in the foreground, dressed in what seems to be a peasant’s outfit. The LARPers all seem to look in her direction. She gives them one of the most theatrical -- and yet sincere -- rounds of applause ever caught on tape. She’s the only one doing so, but it doesn’t come off as pathetic. It’s endearing. Sweet, almost. There’s a community here -- flawed and perhaps a little obsessive, but a community nonetheless. We’re all here, in the best of circumstances, to make this life more entertaining for one another. If it takes styrofoam hammers and PVC pipe swords to do so, then that’s just fine.

They’re going to end up winning, anyways. The LARPers are, after all, true vanguards of nerdery. It’s rare to find someone these days who doesn’t play some form of video game or another -- someone who doesn't, however briefly, assume another role, whether it’s as in-depth as Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 3 or as abstract as the heartless avian general flinging hundreds of his suicide soldiers to their doom in Angry Birds. We play these games in public, too -- no one will look twice at you if you’re playing a game on your iPhone in line at a coffee shop. One day very soon, there’ll be a game that will let you LARP in public  without anyone else knowing. Your trip to the post office will become an epic adventure, and the only people who’ll see the cloak you’re wearing will be those who are in on the game. But of course, by that point, that line won’t be so hard to cross anymore.

Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at jddemartino@gmail.com and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.