Violence in LARP 1: Context

Last year, in a post on part of the Dogma 99 manifesto, I wrote:

When two characters cannot agree to disagree, their methods for settling their squabble, nine times out of ten, are some form of violence, be it physical or supernatural. I can bang on for a bit about why this is, but it basically comes down to “blah blah, root of hobby, power fantasy, blah blah”.

Time to bang on about it a bit.

There’s an old joke about the dominance of the superhero comic in the comics medium – that it’s analogous to walking into a bookstore and finding the shelves full of nurse romance novels, with all other novels consigned to 10% of the space, under one label “alternative”. Comics has improved markedly in the last decade, but violence in games feels like about the same thing. Trying to find an RPG where violence isn’t assumed to be a component of the game is hard.

It’s one biggest issues I have with role-playing games in general, this trend toward violence-as-problem-solving-mechanism. It’s obviously born in the tabletop wargame roots of the hobby, but here we are 40+ years after D&D was first published, and we’re still largely at it. There are very, very few games published where physical violence is strictly off the table, and those that are tend to be indie games with a tiny audience compared to the already pretty small audiences of the mainstream games.

It’s understandable. Roleplaying games are about drama – about conflict. And of course the ultimate expression of conflict is violence. So naturally they include it. Same reason that action movies are popular films. But action movies aren’t the only films.

But finding a literally zero-violence LARP to play in that isn’t an experimental one off is next to bloody impossible. The “mainstream” of LARP can be considered what I think is known as “boffer” LARP in the US, or “fest” LARP in the UK, and it’s pretty much the classic image – people with rubber swords running around in a forest in funny costumes, hitting one another. There are all sorts of variations within that, in setting and theme, but strip it all away, and that’s what you’re left with. (The hitting one another may not be the point of the game, but it’s definitely a key component.)

There’s a secondary mainstream of Vampire LARP – people dressed in black lace in a backroom somewhere, pretending to be vampires scheming against one another, but as anyone who has played one of those can tell you, 90% of the problem-solving in that ultimately comes down to violence, even if there’s an exciting game to be played in getting other people to do your violence for you. Sure, a lot of setting has some kind of ostensible prohibition against violence, but really, everyone knows that’s there in order to create challenges, not to actually prevent the violence.

In both of these forms, conflict almost always comes down to either “can you avert this problem without violence?” or “can you do enough violence to solve this otherwise insoluble problem”?

I should perhaps say that I have played in, and run, many game sessions where no violence has actually taken place, but the fact remains that I’ve never played a LARP where there wasn’t a system to handle violence, if it occurred. It was never off the table by design.

I definitely have it on my ambitions list to run a serial LARP in a pulp vein – ie. the kind of game I like – where violence is simply not on the agenda.

Next time: so, the above notwithstanding, what is violence good for?