Tonight I started thinking about my time in LARP – live action role playing – and what I learned from it. I doubt many people will be interested, but if you are a larper, freeformer or follow me because of my Ars Magica writing you might find something that sparks memories here. Tonight I’m just going to write on this, even if it is self indulgent and there are much better and more important things I could write about, because I really need to get back in to the habit of writing, and because it’s fun to write about myself because I’m an egotistical maniac. 😀
I started playing rpg’s young – Traveller was my first purchase, and I played D&D at school and then with various friends, but most notably Axel Johnston and Mark Weston in the early days. I was a founding member of the Mid Anglia Wargamers club along with Phil Mansfield, and also got to play RPG’s there, and in the mid 80’s sessions of the “Nameless Anarchist Horde” rpg group were regular events on a Thursday night at my parents. Axel was hosting his Runequest and Cyberpunk games on a Monday, and Peter Clark was running games on the weekend. RPG was a big part of my life, but I was also a committed miniature wargamer and board gamer, and indeed some of my board game designs I now realise were actually pretty good and far ahead of the curve.
However, this is about Live Action RPG, and I guess I first heard of that in the early to mid 1980’s when a company called Treasure Trap started to run adventures at Pekforton Castle – sort of D&D for real. Ever since the invention of D&D back in 73/74 roleplayers had dressed up and gone to conventions, doing what today would be referred to as cosplay. When my gaming friend James moved away to Kent, he returned a few months later (the last time I knowingly saw him actually) and told me about how his GM (or DM, Dungeonmaster in D&D parlance dressed up for the game in robes etc. I smiled and said “cool!” but I must admit my first thought was “what a freak he must be!”. However, going beyond dressing up, and actually acting out the narrative of the game, moving from “rpg as radio play with an improvised script” to “rpg as full costume drama/contact sport” – that was a pretty obvious development too.
Now I have been involved with lots of strands of LARP, and for a long time now – almost 30 years – but I have noted very little interest in the origins of the hobby, and almost no attempts to write a history or LARP. As far as I was concerned Treasure Trap in the UK founded in 1982 was the earliest commercial LARP company, and the only one I had heard of. Curiously the UK roleplaying magazine White Dwarf was to my memory scathing and derogatory about Treasure Trap and “Live Action Role Play” or LARP as it became known, and I seem to recall the word “freaks” and “rubber swords” being used a bit. I may well be wrong — it has been thirty years, and while I still have many old issues laying around, I can’t locate the article or editorials in question, but when the company ran in to difficulties with accusations of financial misbehaviour and general misery in 1985 — the ins and outs of which again I never knew, and only gleaned from an often hostile gaming press – there seemed to be a note of relief.
Now maybe I’m imagining it – if there was hostility to LARP, it was probably on the part of one or two writers anyway – but I think I understood it, and shared it to a certain extent. D&D and gaming generally had been suffering from the US backlash against the game, led by BADD and the legendary Patricia Pulling, whose son, a gamer, had committed suicide. Worse was to come — Chick Publications brought out Dark Dungeons, possibly the most infamous anti-gaming tract ever in 1984.
Uni & The Dungeonmaster
If that was bad, we were all reeling from something far, far worse. It is so shameful I hesitate even now to mention it in public. Yet I must, and years of therapy mean I can now recall it, and indeed sadistically inflict it upon you. Take 20 minutes to watch this. You will never be the same again…
Yes, the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon really killed 90% of the credibility of the game. Long before even that however, something to have a more enduring legacy had occurred.
Enter the Steam Tunnels
In 1979 a brilliant but troubled 16 year old prodigy named James Dallas Egbert III had gone missing from Michigan State University. His parents called in Private Eye William Dear, a tough guy PI of the old school I think from his book. He however also comes over as humane, understanding and pretty liberal — and genuinely out to save hi client, the missing boy. Dallas, as he preferred to be called had issues with his mother (according to Dear) who had very high expectations from him, but the real issue seems to have been he was far younger than anyone around him, and he was also homosexual at a time when that may have been a bit harder than today. After 30 days Dear got him back – but the media circus that erupted was very much focussed on the fact Dallas was a keen D&D player – though kicked out of the only group who admitted to playing with him for being high all the time it seems — and may have been playing D&D in the 8.5 miles of steam tunnels beneath Michigan State University campus.
Now let us be clear – Dallas was manufacturing heavy drugs, and using them, and involved in gay sex while a minor which could have got his apparently older partners in to huge trouble. The reasons for his disappearance he gave were family expectations, but he may well have had other reasons, or parts of it may have been involuntary, or, well who knows? It was a long time ago, and tragically Dallas killed himself later. His original disappearance was part of a botched suicide attempt, and later he tried again while missing. This is all awful and miserable, but it had nothing to do with D&D. William Dear however played up the gaming angle, and attempted to play down the drugs and gay angle, and the media got very excited by those steam tunnels which it became clear were used by students to travel and play games and for darker purposes. Still Dear had uncovered the first LARPERs – and curiously also records in his book that some people were by the summer of 1979 playing D&D on company computers after work hours by modems – putting internet RPG sessions back to 1979.
Now in the USA the Dallas Egbert case was headline news, and it was noted in the papers over here, with the D&D leads to boy vanishing spin I guess. I think many people were more intrigued by what he reported about people playing “D&D live” though. In 1984 Dear published a full(-ish) account of the case, The Dungeon Master, which is often referred to as anti-gaming literature. I have read ever one of the 402 pages and I don’t get that impression at all. William Dear himself paid sixty bucks (so about £90 in today’s equivalent cash) to a student to run a D&D adventure for him, and narrates it in the book (high on DM fiat, sounds enjoyable though). He has only positive things to say about the staff of TSR, the game manufacturers, and seems generally positive as do his staff about the geeky SF fans, Tolkien Society members and D&D players they interacted with. However there was a five year gap between the case and newspaper headlines and his book coming out.
In that time an American author Rona Jaffe wrote a novel that loosely refers to the steam tunnel legends, and in the minds of those who remembered coverage of the Dallas Egbert case might have seemed connected. In fact there may be no connection — because plenty of people other than Egbert had played D&D in the MSU steam tunnels, including according to Dear professors, and his inquiries uncovered a whole subculture of “live D&D players”. Southern Methodist University and California Institute of Technology had these proto-larpers in the tunnels there; and Dear reports “It was a seven-day-a-week vocation for some students at the University of Iowa” (Dear, 1984, p.163)
What is also interesting is the gender aspect in these larp circles. “Half were girls. Dungeons & Dragons isn’t an arm wrestling contest, it’s a mental game. The women in our group were very imaginative. It got tough in the tunnels, of course, but it wasn’t the sort of tough that required lifting heavy boxes or duking it out with John Wayne types. The women could handle the conditions as well as any guy.”
(Dear 1984, p.158)
The DM for at least one MSU tunnel game was a woman. I have been trying to work out how the game was played – were there live combats? – as Dear mentions other campuses where wooden weapons were employed, usually bamboo rattans at this point – but it is not clear from his text. What we do know is this
“You could get lost very easily. And the conditions were terrible – so hot you thought your brain would boil… The DM would hide treasures, which all of us had chipped in to buy, and the person who found them could keep them. And there’d be niches you could reach in to. You might come up with a handful of decaying calf’s liver, or soggy spaghetti representing an orc’s brain, or something equally unappetising. Of course you might find a treasure. The DM did not really have to set traps. There were plenty of those already”.
(Dear 1984, p.158)
Rona Jaffe’s book Mazes and Monsters took as it’s plot a steam tunnel game of D&D, or Mazes & Monsters as known here, that goes badly wrong. One of the players becomes obsessed with their character, and ends up, you guessed it, nuts in the steam tunnels. CBS bought the TV rights, a made for TV movie followed, that you can still catch from time to time, probably only because the obsessed boy was played by a very young Tom Hanks. 😉
It’s late, and you have plenty to watch. Tomorrow I’ll pick up the story in 1985, when for the first time I decided to abandon sanity and head out in to the woods to play D&D live, with no real idea of what I was doing 🙂 What could possibly go wrong? I’ll also reveal the story of “Romeo & Juliet meet the Verona Chainsaw Massacre” the KEGS school KILLER game, and finally our Halloween 1985 attempt at playing Call of Cthulhu Live, which was extremely cool.
And yes, some of this has been embarrassing. Geeky silly sterotypes abound still today, we just laugh at them more. I rather wish my 1985 experience in Lawshall woods – or was it Hartest woods? – had even been as respectable as this video Harry posted earlier — which just goes to show that embarrassing stuff was not exclusive to the 80’s 😉