This struck me many years ago, but I haven’t put it into writing before now. When we build worlds for larp, we want them to be believable, interesting, meaningful, etc. We want them to feel real, for lack of a better word.
Yet, one of the things we consistenly do is ignore the silly and weird stuff that’s also part of life. The small things with very little explanation that are a huge part of creating tight-knit communities. The in-jokes, the secret handshakes and the rituals.
Sure, we sometimes include a little, but it’s almost always serious and well-reasoned and logical. If we create a dark cult for a larp, they may have a secret signal to each other, but it’ll be something that helps to define them. It definitely won’t be making an elephant nose with your hands!
One of the reasons of this is that larps are hyperreal. They’re condensed versions of (fictional) reality, and we try to cut out as much of the irrelevant stuff as possible to make them powerful and engaging. This is all well and good, but I think that we sometimes overlook opportunities.
Case Study: Rollespilsfabrikken
To give some examples of what I’m talking about, I’ll use my own non-profit organisation as an example. We founded it in March 2005 (under the name Junior Rollespil København) and it’s the biggest larp organisation in Denmark. We’re around 40 core members who run the show, and there’s a total membership flock of more than a thousand. We do larps for kids, larps in Polish castles and larps for adults ranging from the deadly serious to the decidedly less so. We’re also a pretty tight invite-only community, where it takes a lot to get to be a part of the inner circle.
And we have a ton of rituals and weird traditions!
- The alcoholic drink of choice in Rollespilsfabrikken is Tuborg gold beer. This doesn’t mean that everyone drinks it (or even alcohol), but it’s pretty pervasive, and people get mock-shamed for choosing regular beer. It’s even an essential part of an almost decade old story from one of our old members, featuring a drunken uncle at a family party conversing by only uttering the words “I ONLY want gold beer!”
- There’s a song. It’s pretty outrageous and horribly offensive in the wrong company, but even the most dedicated social justice warriors among us (and we are quite a few) will happily shout out its lyrics at times both appropriate and inappropriate. “Crush your weak skull” is the ending line.
- There’s an initiation ritual that includes some stuff that’s a bit edgy. There’s a haiku poem involved and ritual chanting. And gold beer of course. It’s ironic as hell and hard to not laugh while doing it, but it exists.
- There are weird stories that have turned into stories, that have turned into legends, that have turned into sayings or concepts used by people who don’t know the original story (or who get it wrong). There’s “pussy egg”, “the ashes of the Swan”, “Young Young Boys”, “checking the van” and the ominous-sounding, but well-intentioned “Hitler! Hitler! Hitler!” social rule.
- There are things that once were, but are no more. Some of these exist as stories within the tribe, told by elders around the campfire. Some have been forgotten by all but a few. “Economic Committee” is no longer used as an expression, and only a few will understand the meaning of “The Draconian Incident”.
Some of these rituals and traditions that help shape and define our small community are admired by others. Some make people lift their eyebrows, and some are just plain offensive in many outside contexts (the “Hitler! Hitler! Hitler!” rule won’t play well everywhere, for example!).
And we’ve existed for only 11 years. We’ve gone from being a group of friends who worked together, to a formalised organisation that had to deal with all the problems of going from friend group to formal structure, and these days we have processes and rules and charters and all the trappings of a big volunteer hobby organisation.
Now consider a 100-year old cult
The reason I jump naturally from Rollespilsfabrikken to cult is because we are a bit of a cult. A good-hearted and ironic and aware one, but still. And who knows what it’ll look like in 2050? Will it still exist? Will it more less quirky and more polished? Or will Rollespilsfabrikken 2050 be even more full of weird stuff?
Will they still use the rallying cry “To Donau!”, talk reverently about the legend of “The Fist” and have a Girls in Armour sketch at the yearly christmas party?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that I think we should be less afraid of allowing some of the whimsy of reality to enter our larp writing. The Led Zeppelin song “Black Dog” wasn’t named as such because they didn’t have a name for the song, and there happened to be a black dog in the studio the day they were recording. There’s a musical alphabet that reads a, h, c, d, e and so on, because of a smudge on a critical rescribing of text in the the past. Some Danish soldiers in Afghanistan had (have?) games where they put leaded insignia in their folded barets and used those to slap each other in the genitals. Both on and off-duty.
The world is weird
I propose that we allow ourselves to be that as well when we create fictional worlds. And the picture of the bike is because of a ritual of mine. I always take a picture of it when I park it somewhere and leave for longer journeys. So I don’t lose it. And yes, it’s with good reason!