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Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games
By Lizzie Stark
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2012 Lizzie Stark
All rights reserved.
The Expert and the Noob
I am still not sure how I ended up in a fake black corset and glittery red hat listening to a woman in a leather vest tell me about her lost pup — by which she meant her son — who vanished during a chase in a parallel universe.
I'm pretty sure that somehow, Molly Mandlin is responsible.
Before I knocked on Molly Mandlin's door on a fateful day earlier in 2008, I had been to one gaming convention, where I'd seen grown men in lab coats and period reproductions of Revolutionary War uniforms. I'd seen grown women in Old West harlot outfits, in medieval corsets, and in plaid shirts with fake rifles à la Annie Oakley. But I'd felt a sort of vague confusion about the whole process, tinged, perhaps, with contempt that adults could spend their free time on something so frivolous as dress-up.
Meeting Molly at her apartment changed all that. She wasn't the first larper I'd met, although she was, perhaps, the most passionate. She lived in Brooklyn with Rob, her boyfriend of five years, and their apartment was crammed with gamers' treasures — old copies of games such as Heroes and Dungeons & Dragons and piles of fanzines for various role-playing games. A box filled with mystery novels sat in front of a bookcase, the books on those shelves obscured by Rob's collection of Nerf guns.
Molly invited me into their small living room, and I sat on the couch while she pulled up her rolling desk chair. The armchair next to us had been rendered functionless by a pile of carefully arranged stuffed animals, including two linen rag dolls maybe two and a half feet tall that sat on the lap of a large bear. The dolls' faces were blank except for noses made from a gathered knot of fabric. One wore a purple outfit, the other a blue one — not doll clothing but real children's clothing. Both dolls had on real black wigs topped by headbands attached to bunny ears. Within five minutes of my arrival, Molly was introducing me to the dolls, who represent the twins Kayleel and Thea (short for Athena), the children of Andromache, the futuristic character that Molly had dreamed up as part of a game. We jumped into the first of many conversations about her characters.
Andromache was an assassin trained by the government of a technologically advanced world in which ancient Greek culture had become the prevalent world culture. In what I learned was typical gamer fashion, Molly had plenty to say about her character.
After she shared the basics of Andromache's story with me, Molly pulled a clear plastic suitcase out from under the desk in the den and unzipped it, revealing many tiny costumes, each one in its own plastic bag. She unzipped one labeled "Halloween costume" and showed me a gauzy tutu and some cat ears on a headband. The twins, I learned, were ballerina cats this year for Halloween. Each twin had her own lunchbox, outfits, and toys.
I don't know what I expected, but certainly not props of this specificity, displayed with what was unmistakably pride mingled with self-consciousness. Molly knew that not everyone would understand her gaming life, but she pursued it anyway because it was her passion. I might not understand why yet, but I could respect that. Toward the end of our five-hour interview, Molly showed me the baby book she had made for the twins during the time that Andromache was pregnant. It had little handprints and footprints in it, rubber stamped with ink, and handwritten notes from Andromache to her children.
"I know I'm a little too into this stuff," she said.
Molly plays Andromache in a larp called the Avatar System, a game that has two or three sessions each year, primarily during the gaming conventions run by Double Exposure, which also created the game. In between events, characters interact with one another using online forums, and many players post fiction or narration relating to their characters. The Avatar System is set in a fictional world called the Nexus, which exists between all possible realities. For this reason, players can create whatever characters they can imagine — there are vampire slayers, space pirates, sentient computer programs, popes from cartoon worlds, and medieval kings.
Molly began playing Avatar after her then-boyfriend brought her to a Double Exposure convention, and soon she was hooked. After they broke up, Molly says, the community reached out to keep her involved in the game. One player, Dave Stern, even drove into Manhattan from New Jersey to pick her up for conventions.
Over the next few months and several visits to her apartment, I try to unravel exactly what a bright, if unconventional, woman like Molly gets out of larp.
At heart, Molly is a storyteller. She doesn't simply use the various characters she plays in games to tell stories. Like many other larpers, she turns every aspect of her life into a story. She tells me about her fibromyalgia, a chronic condition characterized by body pain, how it went undiagnosed for many years: the terrible dry mouth, fatigue, and bone pain that make small things like leaving the house to go shopping very difficult. She tells me about Jason, her former fiancé whom she met over the Internet and then discarded after he bilked her out of $15,000, hocking her platinum engagement ring to defray the debt. She tells me about teaching in the South Bronx before her fibro became so bad that she had to stop working, about the children's books she hopes to write and illustrate. Her paintings, some abstract, some representational, all representing no small measure of talent, are strewn across the apartment. She tells me the story of her father, a surplus buyer who purchases large quantities of odd things from auctions and surplus sales, how in her childhood he once bought so many flats of rubber bands that she and her brother jumped on them like a trampoline when they visited the warehouse. She tells me about the giant wheels of Camembert that her father bought and the small ice cream fridge that housed them, how she and her brother ate Camembert sandwiches at school for many months.
I learn the surprisingly innovative back stories of the strong female characters Molly has dreamed up. I hear about Polly Rogers, an Aztec pirate queen whose mother married a conquistador and then abandoned her. Molly never played Polly because she developed the character so much in her mind that she felt there was nothing left to discover in-game, nowhere for the character to grow. Molly's second Avatar character, Echo, is a cyberpunk kid with a rare disease that her super-smart parents cured by inventing nano-robots. And it is these nano-robots that give Echo superpowers. When I ask, Molly agrees that Echo's family is an idealized version of her own; Molly's parents are divorced, but Echo's parents stayed together until a powerful corporation abducted them. Echo's parents were able to cure their daughter of a debilitating illness, but Molly's parents, through no fault of their own, could not do the same, and for a long time, chalked Molly's fatigue up to weakness of character.
Echo and Polly Rogers aside, Andromache is the center of Molly's fantasy life, a life that Molly puts a great deal of energy into developing, posting as Andromache regularly on the Avatar System's in-character online forum. She shows me the Barbie doll she made over to look like Andromache and a comic book cover with a woman in leather on it, one that Molly says resembles Andromache.
Andromache does not look like Molly. Although they are around the same age, in their early thirties, Andromache is tall and Amazonian, with brown, Mediterranean skin, large breasts, an anatomically impossible waist, and long, cascading blue-black hair. Molly is pale and wears her straight brown hair pulled into a small bun or ponytail. She says that her generously proportioned figure represents one of the many side effects of fibromyalgia — she feels too crummy to exercise.
When she gets a new cane, she shows that to me, too, and says she always used a hand-me-down cane and finally decided to get one for herself. The cane is made of anodized aluminum and is colored electric turquoise. Its laser-etched floral pattern glints silver in the sunlight.
As the big summer gaming convention DEXCON approaches, we begin to talk about me. I need help. I've never done this before. My imagination is rusty from a year of graduate work, so I will need to rev it back to life. If I'm going to write about larp and discover its draw, then I need to try it, both to get inside the community and to decipher the seemingly endless amount of jargon — IC, OOG, GM, meta-gaming, munchkin, min-maxer. At least, that's what I tell myself, that I'm doing this because it's part of the job.
My fascination with larp is a little hard to explain. As a child I loved the Arthurian legends, medieval fantasy novels, and adventure films, solitary activities that are made into communal ones through the interactive storytelling of larp. Maybe larp speaks to my failed theater aspirations in high school, where I was a perennial chorus member and never the lead actress I wanted to be. Maybe larp fascinates me because I stubbornly like things that are weird, DIY, or on the fringes of the cultural landscape — experimental literature, soap making, fermented pickles, obscure Japanese film. Perhaps my larp fetish derives from jealousy that there are others in this world who can join a community without making a sardonic joke of themselves.
Rob and Molly advise me over several visits. Rob is a couple years older than Molly, in his mid-thirties, a tall black man with a quiet, unassuming demeanor and a subtle, sarcastic sense of humor so dry that it sometimes passes over my head. He installs computer software, and he had met Molly at Avatar, which he has been playing for upward of ten years. He based his character, Zane, on The Prisoner, a 1960s TV show starting Patrick McGoohan. Talking to me about Zane made Rob nervous because he had plots in motion that wouldn't come to fruition for years, and he worried that my book would come out before he was able to spring his various traps.
A cadre of larp veterans in addition to Rob and Molly offered me suggestions on what sort of character to create. I was to choose a genre that spoke to me, that I knew backward and forward, for my first character, to give in to the secret fantasies I harbored about myself while huddled under the sheets with a book as a child. My feminist sensibility recoiled at my first thought — a princess — so I had to delve deeper.
I had my character's name before I had anything else: Verva Malone. It inexplicably popped into my head and stuck. The whole point of larp is to play pretend, to be someone I usually didn't get to be, so a journalist was out. I opted for the next best thing: a private eye. I intended to report as I larped, and clearly a private eye would have an in-character reason to carry a notebook.
The more I imagined Verva as a private eye, the more it made sense. The first books I ever liked on my own came from the Nancy Drew series, which I read so voraciously that my mother rationed books while we were on family vacation. I'd loved detectives my whole life, from Sherlock Holmes to film noir to the pulpy paperbacks I read guiltily while in a graduate program for literary fiction.
Molly scoured the Internet for private eye outfits to use as models, and together we came up with a costume concept. She lent me a beige clutch handbag and the four inch purple heels she could no longer wear but loved. Rob talked to me about Verva, where she was from (California), and how she arrived in the Nexus (mysterious explosion).
The week before the convention, I scoured costume shops in New York for long strands of fake pearls, a toy pistol, and gloves. I burned hours on eBay searching for the perfect cloche hat but had to settle for a cheap flapper rendition bought at a costume store. I even read a Raymond Chandler novel to get myself in the proper mindset.
Finally, Wednesday, July 16 arrived and DEXCON 11 began with great fanfare at the East Brunswick Hilton in New Jersey. Molly sat between Rob and me at a round table in one of the hotel's ballrooms. Perhaps two hundred of the one-thousand-plus convention goers who would arrive over the course of the weekend sat around tables covered by white tablecloths with their chairs pushed back, sated from the all-you-could-eat buffet. Not everyone was a larper, per se, but all these people were gamers, and the crowd definitely had a self-selected look. There were reedy young men with ponytails, rotund women poured into their jeans, men representing the so-called fatbeard contingency, spindly young women of the Goth persuasion, middle-aged bald bikers in leather jackets and military hats, and many people of average build in black shirts with kicky slogans like "Joss Whedon is my master now." As a diehard fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I related to that sentiment.
Over the course of the five-day convention, these people would collectively play a jillion rounds of Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games, war games with hand-painted miniatures, collectible card games such as Magic: The Gathering, badminton, trivia games, Monopoly, Risk, and more. Over twenty different larps would also run. Vincent Salzillo, president of Double Exposure, the company that ran the conventions and the Avatar System, even put together a puzzle with one clue on each convention-goer's badge.
Vinny Salzillo had dark brown hair, a Burt Reynolds moustache, and an impressively diverse collection of gamer humor T-shirts bearing such slogans as "+20 Shirt of Smiting" and "Everything I know, I learned from gaming." At conventions, he was famous for wearing bright patterned lounge pants and walking around the convention floor without shoes. He'd grown up in the Bronx, where he attended the Bronx High School of Science, a magnet school where he created and ran his very first games for his fellow students. He'd been a fixture on the sci-fi fandom and gaming convention circuit since the early 1980s, and over time he became known both for writing games and for running theme parties at various conventions. He fondly remembers running thirteen parties over three days at the Disclave convention in 1990, including a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle party that featured pizza bagels and a party inspired by the book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that featured the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, which Vinny concocted for the occasion out of dry ice, grain alcohol, blue food coloring, and lemon extract. In 1992, at age twenty-six, he'd run his first DEXCON, keeping up the tradition of theme parties with SUGARFEST, a sweet-themed shindig, and a chocolate fondue party. In 1995 he introduced the Avatar System at Double Exposure's first DREAMATION convention, which ran that January.
As I found a seat in the banquet room for my first day at DEXCON, I read the phrase "Are you ready for some football?" scrolling across a scrim at one end of the room in large letters. The tiny script "then you're in the wrong place" followed. Eventually, the lights dimmed, and a short homemade film that poked gentle fun at gamers played.
The crowd clapped and cheered at the end of the film, and as the lights were turned up, a group of men walked slowly and reverently through the sea of tables, each holding the edge of a white piece of cloth that draped between them but did not touch the floor. When they reached the front of the room, they attached one side of the fabric to an inverted U of PVC pipe and hoisted the banner high. Various multisided dice were outlined with electrical tape on the banner. Later that evening, many audience members would use similarly shaped bits of plastic to play Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D, as it was commonly abbreviated.
Molly turned to me. "You know how some people talk about having a flag?" she said. "Well that's our freak flag. And we actually like to fly it."
As men finished raising the flag, the audience burst into applause, and several people shouted "Do-ba! Do-ba!" (pronounced "dough-bah") — some inside joke from the Avatar System that had not yet been explained to me. Molly wouldn't tell me what it meant. Evidently, I'd have to hear the origin myth from Michael Smith, an affable high school physics teacher who played a character named Michael Lovious Smith in the Avatar System. And he only told the Do-ba story once per convention.
Excerpted from Leaving Mundania by Lizzie Stark. Copyright © 2012 Lizzie Stark. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
The Expert and the Noob,
Growing Up Gamer,
Queen Elizabeth, Larper,
The King of Make-Believe,
The Adventures of Portia Rom,
Closeted Gamers and the Satanic Panic,
The Unwritten Rules,
Larp as Training Tool,
A Week in Denmark,
Knudepunkt Blew My Mind,
What People are Saying About This
"Whether you thoroughly appreciate the work of Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon [LARP's newly appointed overlord] or just have a mild interest in geek culture, Stark makes this world of pretend a little more real." —BUST
“Lizzie Stark takes us down the rabbit hole and into the curiouser and curiouser world of larp and shows us a place where imagination lives and breathes. Enter if you dare . . . and enjoy the ride! It’s an enlightening and wondrous journey.” —Tracy Hickman, New York Times bestselling fantasy author and game designer
“Rarely does a book so deftly crack open the everyday world to reveal the riot of imagination within. With humor, intelligence, and more than a little bravery, Lizzie Stark guides us into the vast subculture of larping, where lawyers become vampire hunters and systems analysts turn into knights. Hilarious, honest, and enlightening, Leaving Mundania reminds us how thin the boundaries are between the roles we play and the selves we believe ourselves to be.” —Stacey Richter, Pushcart Prize-winning author of My Date With Satan, and Twin Study
"Lizzie Stark isn't afraid to walk the goblin walk, talk the in-character talk, wear the make-up, and wield the boffer sword. With verve, wit and candor, Leaving Mundania provides an important contribution to the history of role-playing and gaming, and proves the cultural significance of this flourishing game/performance/medium." —Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms
"Lizzie Stark valiantly throws herself into the sword-swinging world of live-action role-playing games in Leaving Mundania." —Vanity Fair
“A fascinating trip through the looking glass and into the subculture of larp. Stark gives us both the magic and the humanity of live-action make-believe. And as a social historian, she incisively points to a pop-culture trend on its way from the fringe toward the mainstream.” —Samuel Freedman, author of The Inheritance and Letters to a Young Journalist
"Rich, unexpected and compelling . . . Stark’s keen observational skills and crisp writing style successfully cut through those hackneyed stereotypes to reveal the very real people who are drawn to deeply imaginary worlds."—Kirkus Reviews
"A fascinating look at the world of live-action role playing-with a book jacket that slays me."—SchoolLibraryJournal.com