Cry havok and release the dogs of war!

With the growing popularity of LARP, gamers are suiting up for battle (sort of) and moving outside their basements

Aranda Adams

For most of us, deciding what to put on our toast in the morning can be the most exciting part of the day. For others, coming face to face with an angry minotaur doesn’t even come close to how thrilling things can get.

Live action role-playing (LARP), commonly referred to as “larping,” is a form of fantasy game that allows mere mortals to physically immerse themselves in a make-believe realm where anything is possible. Here in the Winnipeg LARP scene, Havok, a Dungeons-and-Dragons style LARP, is a game that has gained popularity over the past 11 years.

Pedro Bedard, owner of Imagine Games and Hobbies in the Exchange District and one of the creators of Havok, said there are two Havok larping groups in Winnipeg along with groups that indulge in other LARP games, some of which attract more than 70 players a session.

According to Bedard, who began his gaming life 34 years ago with the original Dungeons and Dragons, larping’s appeal is much more limited compared to other styles of fantasy games.

“It has very specific appeal,” he said, adding that computer and tabletop games have always been much more popular. “Not a lot of people are going to take the time, energy and money to make costumes and swords and spend the weekend running around in the woods dressed like an elf or a knight.”

Professional hobbyist, avid tabletop strategy and World of Warcraft player Paul Sorenson, who admits to cultivating the air of not being geeky, thinks of larping as the ultimate geekiness.

“For me that’s a really extreme end. I personally wouldn’t do it,” Sorenson said.

But for the elite hardcore larpers, the time and effort is well worth the thrill they get out of creating and engaging in a fantasy world of their own.

“It makes us feel better that we have this small little world we can go and have fun in,” said John Francisco, a Havok larper with seven years of experience.

According to Francisco the most amusing aspect of the fantasy world, which in Havok is called Vaithan, is the magic. In order to use their magical powers, players use their imaginations.

“If a player wants to cast a spell they would take a beanbag, you say the spell and throw it at somebody,” Francisco said, adding that players can also visualize the incantation, chant and wave their hands.

[Larpers] are the nerds that other nerds make fun of.

Paul Sorensen, avid hobbyist and gamer

But their imaginations aren’t the only thing on creative overdrive – larpers have got mad costume-making skills and make most of their garb from scratch.

The photos of highly detailed costumes on Francisco’s computer screen, from glorious glossy gowns to elaborate cloaks, masks and elf ears, seem to be thoughtfully designed and crafted.

Basic costumes, he said, can take a week or so to make, but more detailed work can be much more time consuming.

“One guy made a suit of chainmail,” Francisco said, pointing to a photo of a man clad in authentic looking chain.

Although Sorensen admits to spending hours building and painting game pieces for Warhammer, devoting hours to sewing costumes is one of the things that makes larping much too geeky for him.

“[Larpers] are the nerds that other nerds make fun of,” he said.

But according to Bedard, the sense of total physical immersion in the game is the reason that larping beats the pants off other fantasy games.

“When you larp you are escaping into something that you yourself are actually controlling. Your character becomes part of an ongoing story.”

For Francisco, live combat gives him the greatest sense of reality in the fantasy world.

“I like it because I can get in armour and make a weapon out of foam and latex and run out and start hitting things ... instead of holding a controller and playing video games,” Francisco said.Although combat can get pretty heated, Francisco said larpers make an effort to stay safe.

“There is contact but ... we don’t hit each other with full force,” he said.

But in Sorenson’s opinion, putting any sort of weapon in anyone’s hands is dangerous, especially when the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred.

“It’s like UFC players. When it’s game time they will beat the living trash out of each other,” he said.

But whether your thumbs are the only thing moving or you physically assume the persona of a character, fantasy gaming in general is undoubtedly gaining popularity.

“Ten years ago if you told people you played video games, they would think you must be a geek,” Sorenson said.

But times are changing.

“I think a lot of people still think of [fantasy] games and stores as a place where the high school nerds go ... but it has gotten a lot more mainstream,” Bedard said, adding that there are four thriving fantasy gaming stores in Winnipeg.

So if this is the case, it looks like people may have to start redefining what constitutes a geeky gamer.

Published in Volume 64, Number 20 of The Uniter (February 25, 2010)

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