I’m standing in a block of perhaps twenty men and women forming a compact fist at the centre of the battle-line. Around us, our fellow countrymen make the numbers up to a couple of hundred, arrayed behind and to either side of us with an order that few of our allies can match. The front rank are shieldmen – our shield wall is the envy of the world. They stand with their round shields slightly overlapped, waiting for the advance to be sounded. I stand in the second with the spearmen, ready to defend the heads of the shieldwall, or guard their bodies should they fall. Behind me the rigid lines lose their cohesion: a shifting, porous mass of archers, skirmishers, healers and magicians mill and fret.
    To our left, the forces of our allies are doing their best to match us: a stretch of men with tall black tower shields, a stand of athletic hellenes with bronze helms and shortswords. Beyond them, the more ragged ranks of the clansmen: claymores and great-axes serry the air. There is a murmur of uncertainty. Why have we stopped? Ahead of us the terrain slopes up, no place to be caught by the enemy. Shouldn’t we be taking the crest of the hill?
    To our right the elves are filtering in. There are few shields amongst them, many bows.  Aside from small knots of armoured men who must be the personal retinues of some noble or other they lack the sheer metal mass of our own heavy infantry. Our people who share a flank with them are restive. There is a shifting of our skirmishers – bucklermen, sword and dagger men and spears – towards that edge of our lines.
    Our scouts are coming back, and at a run: a meagre handful of them, quivers rattling at belt or back, they are racing down the slope to where our lord-general, and all the allied generals, stand waiting for their report.
    The tactical situation is, it seems, very simple: They are coming.
    Our general takes his position in the second rank, beneath the raven standard. The shieldmen pull a little tighter, correcting all the little lapses of discipline that an enforced wait brings.
    I raise my eyes to the hill’s crest.
    They appear against the sky, just a scattering of figures, it seems: a rabble of spears and swords, barely a shield amongst them. There are so few, as they begin the descent, that I think they must be mad.
    But they are not alone, of course. They are just the most eager for the fray. As they are two steps further down there are more on the crest, and then more again, things of human shape with bloodied faces, clad in flapping red, and they are charging, and the green grass of the hill is eclipsed by a tide of crimson as though some great hand was simply pouring them into the world, an unlimited number of them, rushing at our line and howling wordless cries, weapons raised on high and, I swear, even when they were closing with our shields there were more coming over the hill.
    The elves loose, and our archers also, and the sky is suddenly busy with their shafts. It is not, as we skalds might say, enough to blot out the sun, but the arrows are legion even so. They must cause a fearful ruin to the enemy, who are coming so swiftly, in such numbers, that it seems impossible for any arrow to miss.
    The shafts vanish into their onrushing mass, and their casualties are lost amongst their host, and they come on.
    The shieldmen brace, and I take a tigher grip on my spear-haft.
    The impact sends our entire line back a foot, for all their preparation, and the next ten minutes is lost in chaos. The line holds, the howling faces of our enemies for a moment leering over our shield-rims before enough of them arehacked down that those following grow leery of braving the reach of our blades. Their bodies vanish into the earth.
    To our left, the elvish forces disintegrate even on the moment of impact, breaking and falling back, unable to hold the line, abruptly our skirmishers are funnelling forwards to hold the flank even as the shieldwall bows…
It’s been really quite a while since I wrote this, and so about time I followed it up.
The above is not, as you might think, just a piece of slightly purpled prose written perversely in the first-person present tense, but is a personal account. I was that spear-carrier. That initial engagement then led to one of the nastiest, bloodiest battles I’ve been a participant in. We lost some of our best.
Of course they came back in different hats, as Stoppard put it (1), but that’s beside the point.
Live role-playing(2), sport of kings (3) and yet another of the things one does that can’t really go unmodified onto the CV (4). It’s an odd hobby, and very hard to describe to those who haven’t been there, but I’ll give it a go.
The insider’s impression: a step into another, more fantastic world without even needing the wardrobe, filled with terror, wonder, magic and raw emotion.
To give the most extreme outsider’s impression: a half dozen teenage boys, dressed in sheets and knitted string, panelbeating a near-identical group (save that there are slightly more of them and they have rubber werewolf masks) with lumps of foam and gaffa tape, whilst someone at the back is shouting “Fireball!” and pointing at people. So much for that.
There are different scales of larping, of course, and variable quality, and very different setups. There are university clubs, which range from the sight described above to thirty intellectuals playing out intricate games of alternate history with Elizabethan politics. There are commercial small-party clubs, where attendees get to be the Fellowship, running through caves or woods from one riddle, trap or ambush to the next. There are mid-level fest-systems, where the player numbers reach perhaps 50-100 or so, meeting to act out new adventures in the worlds of, say Firefly or Stargate, or to pursue historically-oriented role-playing as vikings or celts, with or without magic. Then there are the larger fest systems, where player numbers can top the 1000 mark, assembling in their factions and groups and alliances and going to war against this year’s enemy (6). To my knowledge (and the larp scene can change very quickly sometimes) the two biggest battle-oriented fest systems are the Lorien Trust and Curious Pastimes, the latter of which provided the spectacle narrated above (8).
Some systems are less about the battles and more about the politics. In the Maelstrom (9) setting, another I sign up to, whilst there is a modicum of duel, melee and buckles to be swashed (10) there is far more of trade, research, bitterly daggered politics. fiddling the exchange rates and trying to discover What is Going On (11).
Of course larp has some older siblings that bear mentioning. Historical re-enactment is the arch-originator of it all (12), although to continue the family metaphor, it probably doesn’t talk much about its wayward little brother, and leaves the dinner table abruptly when the irresponsible fellow’s exploits are mentioned. Or maybe not. There are plenty of re-enactors who have a foot in both camps, but overall the very, very serious attention to precise historical accuracy doesn’t survive contact with a seventeen year-old boy in a dressing gown calling himself Gandlewic Bhaedspredh.
As an odd kind of missing link between the hardcore re-enactors and the full fantasy larpers come outfits like the Society for Creative Anachronism, who are generally enacting, rather than re-enacting, but draw more from history than fantasy (or so I understand). In fact something like the SCA was, weirdly, my very first pointer that grown people actually did this kind of thing, One of my all-time favourite books, Peter Beagle’s The Folk of the Air (13), introduced me to the concept years before I ever took up a rubber sword, as the hero, Joe Farrell, gets draw into an SCA-like group where real (and very dangerous) magic is going on behind the scenes. Beagle’s portrayal of the quasi-larpers, despite the genuine nastiness that turns up amongst them, is a sympathetic one, and that idea, of a combination of freeform character drama and no-holds-barred melee, must have stayed dormant in my mind until I finally had the chance to try it myself.
The key thing to remember is that, like a Tardis (14) , it’s very different when seen from the inside. It’s not a spectator sport, but it is very immersive. Being Someone Else has a very strong appeal. Stage-acting is all very well, but it puts you on rails and dictates your destination. Tabletop gaming has much to recommend it, but lacks a visceral adrenaline edge. However foolish the entire business might look from outside, however those who shrink from geekery might practically dissolve into oily goo if asked to don a tabard and take up a rubber sword, it is an experience like no other: to stand there with your comrades as the enemy charge your line, or to desperately broker a fragile peace between two colonies while all around you their soldiers are mustering for a fight, to mourn a lost friend taken from you by the murderous hands of a vicious cult (15), to see the empty places at the fire the night after the battle, these are things that we cannot normally do. We live very comfortable lives around here, for which I’m profoundly thankful. They are muted lives, though. I personally never had the yearning to climb a sheer cliff with a minimum of safety equipment, or zoom about in a power boat at outrageous speeds, or do any of those other sports where the word “extreme” seems to be followed by the unspoken addendum “-ly dangerous.” Everyone gets their emotional kick from somewhere, and it seems a little unjust that dressing up in chainmail or robes should be thought of as aberrant, whilst throwing oneself off a bridge whilst still attached at the ankle by a rubber band, or even joyriding in someone else’s car whilst out of one’s mind is, apparently, more explicable to the mainstream of society. It’s almost a revisiting of the “RPGs don’t kill people, guns kill people, but RPGs aren’t mentioned in the constitution” argument.
The demographic of larp is also skewed from the traditional tabletop RPGers. There are far more women, for example, maybe closing on a 50/50 split in some cases, and the age range is similarly broader, especially with the players coming over from the re-enactment side of things. Tne range of experience in the hobby is, consequently, that much the more varied.
For a fantasy writer whose books have more than their share of armed mayhem, larp has another function as well. A writer of sword and sorcery can set his own rules for the sorcery part, but should really know about the swords bit to avoid dull, unconvincing or flat out impossible fight scenes. I imagine most writers in the genre have had a crack at some manner of practical training. Certainly one wouldn’t want to draw sword on KJ Parker on a dark night, who’d probably take a break from building a log cabin to skewer you with a rapier and then fling you several miles from a trebuchet  (16). I had the privilege of watching Mary Gentle fight with sword and dagger, one time, more than holding her own against her instructor and a fellow student, and her understanding, her personal experience, shows clearly in her writing. A writer without any kind of familiarity with the fight is in danger of producing scenes that run like a bad MMORPG combat, opponents slogging it out toe to toe in strict alternation.
Now I’m not saying that everything I ever learned about swordsmanship I learned from larp. In fact, the majority of my knowledge of actual technique comes from some years of stage-fighting training, taught by a kind, patient but, in the end, infinitely troubled man who was one of those people made too late for an age already dead and gone. From him I picked up all that my ham-hands and two left feet were capable of learning of the mysteries of broadsword, rapier, smallsword, main-gauche, quarterstaff and the good old fashioned art of the stage punch-up, and without that training I’d be the poorer writer, no doubt. Stage fighting is a business of intricate preparation, where two supposed opponents work together to propagate the lie of their adversity, though. Stage fighting doesn’t tell you how it feels to be standing in a mob of nervous, uncertain people waiting for the enemy to come, or what it’s like to be fighting for your life against bad odds, and realise that the allies behind you have atrophied, your formation collapsed, and the man at your back has his back to you. For sheer safety reasons larp fighting is limited by rules that distance it from the real thing, but the tactics are the same: shields, spears, bows and all, and a great deal of the emotion feels very real even though you have nothing “real” to lose.


(1) In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not taking their hits.
(2) Optionally live-action role-playing. The inclusion or omission of the word ‘action’ does not indicate the level of physical exertion required. 
(3) This is almost certainly not true. If anyone knows of genuine larping royalty, always keen to hear.
(4) Historical re-enactment is not true, but close enough for government work. Non-historical enactment would be closer.(5)
(5) Obvious comparison with this from the cartoonist Dresden Kodak.
(6) For the curious: those systems that have a big non-player enemy fill its ranks by way of “monstering”, whereby half the players at any battle will doff their usual costume and become Faceless Stormtroopers of the Big Bad, to die in waves against the shields of the heroes (7)
(7) Or, occasionally, to slaughter the heroes mercilessly.
(8) For more details see here
(9) For more details see here
(10) Swashes to be buckled?
(11) The general rule being: if you don’t know, you’re ignorant. If you think you do know, you’re not only ignorant but wrong. 
(12) Well, history is the arch-originator of it all, but that’s going a little beyond my brief
(13) Which rumour suggests may shortly be re-released in an expanded version under the title Avicenna, which I’m looking forward to. Mr Beagle has also just released a new short story collection entitled We Never Talk About My Brother, which I’ve just started on today.
(14) I deserve some kind of award for trying to illuminate an inherently geeky topic by using a simile that is in itself comprehensible mostly to geeks.
(15) and yet to know that the actual person will, as aforesaid, come back in a different hat, and that’s very much the point. It’s limited-exposure tragedy, as if you can not only play the Dane, but actually know that you’ve come to this final and untenable position not by playwright’s fiat but by your own choices and those of the people around you, and then still be able to join Claudius and Gertrude in the pub for a drink later. 
(16) I should point out that I am very fond of KJ Parker’s books and elegant prose style, and the utterly unique things done therein with the genre. I want to make this particularly clear as I suspect that, along with all those other areas, Parker probably knows more about law than I do, too. 
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