So. You are wondering what a LARP is? Well, you have come to the wrong place. We are just one LARP of many, so by playing our LARP you would not learn what LARP actually is. It's like watching a single movie to find out what film is. Many other sources probably do a better job at explaining the entire phenomenon of LARP. For example, the Wikipedia page about LARP.
But lets try and explain it here in our own way anyway.
LARP stands for Live Action Role Playing (game).
LARP is a hobby (like playing video games) and can be a medium for telling/creating amazing stories. One way of summarizing it is "improvised theater without an audience", but a lot of LARPs also have game elements incorporated in them. The actual players usually try and solve a mystery, overcome obstacles, win a fight, or climb a hierarchy, and thus are challenged on some real life physical, mental or social skill(s). Improvised theater usually does not have such game elements and is often performed in front of an audience.
What is "Role Playing"
In a LARP most participants are portraying a character. They make decisions for that character, often based on their character's background, personality and current situation. The character they play might look like them in terms of looks, personality, background or situations or might be completely as far away removed from the player as possible. You might play a character with a different gender, age, class, upbringing, demeanor, philosophy, religion, personality and skill-set. You might even play something that is not even remotely human. Ever wanted to experience the thrill of running a multi-million dollar drug empire as a tyrannical mob boss paranoid of his underlings that all want to replace him? Want to open, with trembling hands, an invitation to your first ball as a young naive girl hoping to meet a charming man to sweep you off your feet? Ever wanted to know what it is like to be a homeless thousand legged sorcerer roaming the streets of an alien planet while being persecuted by oppressors that beam state mandated propaganda onto the stratosphere? Welcome to LARP.
What is "Live Action"
In a LARP most participants are portraying a single character in the LARP. They often wear costumes and have various props to look the part and physically perform the actions their characters would perform. This makes the activity "live action". This is different from for example tabletop role-playing games where participants usually verbally tell the other participants what their character is doing. So while in such a game players would say "I walk over to the treasure chest and peak inside... what do I see?" in a LARP a participant would actually walk over to the chest, physically open it and peak inside to see what is in it.
How to do Impossible Actions
Of course some characters can do more then the participants can. Some might be able to speak an unknown language, hypnotize people, hack into computer systems or even perform magical spells. Such actions can't be performed by the participant even though their characters could do these things, so these actions are handled by mechanisms that symbolize those actions. For example - even though the participants would speak normally - a hand symbol might indicate that they are speaking a different language; a prior agreed upon phrase like "look deep into my eyes" might signal to the other participant that they need to act hypnotized; solving a puzzle on paper might represent hacking into a computer system and a magical incantation combined with pointing at somebody might make everybody act as if you just hurled a fireball across the room at a hated enemy.
Safety in "Live Action"
Of course participants also want to stay safe in the real world, both physically, mentally and emotionally. So things like using a weapon, being intimate, or bullying might be agreed upon to be represented by something else - or simply skipped or avoided - even though the participant would in theory be perfectly able to act it out. Weapons, although they might look dangerous are generally made from foam and latex and most LARPs have various rules on how to use them safely. Intimacy might simply not be a theme that comes up in a LARP or it might be replaced with symbols or narration. Bullying and other forms of social pressure might be avoided altogether or might be subjected to signals to other participants that mean you would like them to ease off or even increase the intensity.
The Goal of LARP
Why play LARP? Primarily, because it's fun, of course. But what makes it fun? What makes for a good LARP? What are participants aiming for? That is actually a hotly debated question. There are many proposed goals to aim for and although none of these propositions are right or wrong, one of the key factors to an enjoyable LARP seems to be the alignment of the participants to a single shared goal. Having two or more, sometimes conflicting, goals can have participants working against each other and undoing the work some other participant is doing. In this section we detail 3 of these goals (based on the essay The three way model by Petter Bøckman) but there are many other goals a LARP might aim for.
A Challenging Environment
Humans like competing and LARP participants are no different. Some people like LARPs to compete with other participants or set challenges prepared by the organizers of the LARP. Sometimes these challenges take the form of violent conflict, but many other challenges exist, from puzzles and mysteries to social hierarchies to climb and political schemes to enact.
Participants joining a LARP with this goal in mind might want to think strategically about how to create their character or they might make an intentionally weak character to give themselves even more of a challenge. As soon as the game starts they will do their best to make their character or their team overcome the obstacles in front of them. They might be disappointed if they notice their opponents let them win a fight on purpose or gave away a valuable piece of political information simply "to move the plot along". They might get even more frustrated if they notice their "team members" intentionally making stupid choices and they will almost definitely feel frustrated if presented with an unwinnable and thus impossible challenge.
Conflict resolution purely based on luck, with no strategic way to influence the probabilities, in such LARPs are often seen as bad game design and sometimes the LARP might be paused to make sure rules are being followed correctly and fairly. Organizers in such LARPs sometimes act as referees and are the arbiters of the rules. They might subtly influence the next challenge if they feel the players are having a too easy or too hard time overcoming the challenges.
Solving challenges and mysteries well "ahead of time" might be a thrilling accomplishment that participants are proud of while challenges and mysteries that go unsolved might be viewed as unbalanced or simply something to strive for next time. When done well, balanced and fair, the players are immersed in the challenge and can get into a flow state similar to the height of a computer game or intense sport match.
A Good Story
Some would say that the most fun is had if all the participants aim at creating satisfying and dramatic stories with character arcs, plot twists and conflict. Participants joining a LARP with this goal in mind want to experience being inside a movie or book. They don't mind "winning" or "losing" and recognize that when everybody does their logical best to keep valuable information close and is sensible in avoiding conflict that stories don't tend to happen. So these participants might portray characters that are unreasonable in their convictions, sometimes talk before they think and spoil their - or other people's - secrets. They might employ "play to lose" techniques and often "lift" the roles of other participants by for example acting as if being impressed by their skills, even though they could have done a better job themselves.
A participant with this goal in mind might get frustrated if secrets don't get revealed before the LARP is over, because those secrets might just as well not have existed if they don't influence the story. They might get frustrated if faced with challenges that test their actual skills if it would be more dramatic to succeed after just having had an uplifting speech from their secret crush. Alternatively, if they are on a winning streak it might suit the story to get overconfident and fail miserably, this forces the participant to then also spend energy on non-awkwardly failing the challenge on purpose while maintaining their role.
Some LARPs that are focused on the story might choose to forgo the challenge and game aspect entirely and simply give the participants the freedom to chose what challenges are "won" and "lost" and what characters prevail in a fight. When challenges and mysteries are solved "ahead of time" they might mess up the pacing of the story which participants try and avoid, mysteries that go unsolved might be seen as wasted potential for a climactic reveal or open ended stories. Similarly, mysteries might be revealed before the game so participants can use this information to better collectively steer the situation towards a dramatic reveal. When done well the players are immersed in the narrative and can get into a state of similar to watching in intense movie or reading a thrilling novel.
A Simulated Situation
Other players might want to feel as their character would feel in the situation presented in the LARP. They want to safely experience what it would be like to be their character as closely as possible. They want to make decisions their character would make based on the information their character would have. Note that this could include boredom when not properly challenged and frustration while facing unwinnable odds which would both make for lousy challenges and stories.
Participants that join a LARP with this goal in mind often don't employ play to lose or play to lift techniques as they try and make as little choices influenced by outside information as possible. Although doable it is often hard to play a character that is far removed from yourself and truly get into their mindset while making decisions. Situations that are influenced purely based on luck don't feel unfair or unwanted to the participant, even though they might feel unfair and unwanted to the character. When serendipity does strike and things line up by sheer coincidence to create a compelling story arch it often feels more "real" to the participant as the situation arose naturally from the given situation, instead of people collectively working towards it.
The participant that hunts this particular goal might likewise get frustrated when they notice people making decisions based on outside information, even though they might be using it to lose a conflict on purpose or create a dramatic moment. Participants might get frustrated when mysteries are revealed to them before their characters know, wanting to experience the reveal of such secrets parallel to their characters. LARPS that go for this type of experience will try their best to line up the challenges of the participants as much as possible with the challenges of the characters. The players should be making the same if not very similar strategic decisions compared to their characters and participants might get frustrated when challenges are too abstractly removed from the experience. For example a word puzzle to hack a computer system might be too far removed from the decisions a hacker would need to think about while hacking a bank and might break immersion.
Challenges and mysteries that are solved "ahead of time" are not a source of pride but simply a matter of fact. The character might feel proud of the accomplishment but has no reference frame to compare it to as they are not aware of their pacing compared to the outside narrative. Similarly challenges and mysteries that go unsolved before the LARP ends are not seen as wasted potential. It would be "unrealistic" for all problems and secrets to reach fruition neatly at the "end". When done well the players are immersed "in their character" and share as much feelings and emotions as their character would feel, thus they are in a state similar to being their characters.