A letter arrived in my PO box one day. No — a scroll of yellowing parchment was delivered to my quarters. (I had requested that Abigail from Otherworld keep all our correspondences electronic, but she insisted that it would be way more fun to see it on yellowing parchment.) The scroll was from Duke Kai Edgewater of P’loa. A separate piece of printer paper explained that P’loa was the name of my assigned duchy (not pronounced doo-shee). The island of P’loa, our Duke wrote, was engulfed in a maelstrom that appeared two weeks ago. And the only way to save our homeland was to recover a certain Jewel of the Waves from somewhere out near the World’s Edge. And he’d recruited — or rather, conscripted — me for the quest.
We were going LARPing.
First, my buddies and I went costume shopping at Walmart. The Duke had said Cyrus was to be our “rogue,” so he fashioned a bandit mask out of turquoise curtain from the fraternity house. Forrest, our “paladin,” spray-painted children’s soccer shin guards for armor. Hugh, our “mage,” threw a hood over his face. As I myself was assigned to be our “bard” (a derogatory term for an itinerant musician or storyteller in 16th century Scotland), I dressed myself in a linen tunic, a vest and women’s summer scarves. I asked, but Walmart did not sell lutes.
Come the Friday of Labour Day weekend, we crammed ourselves into a Camry and began the drive toward World’s Edge, also known as the Windham County 4-H Outdoor Center of Pomfret, Conn. We rolled down the windows, head-banged to tunes that we then categorized as ‘head-bangers’, threw our fists at other vehicles on the highway and were off. We were going LARPing.
LARP, or live action role-play, dates back to the Tudors. Queen Elizabeth once indulged in elaborate, costumed weekends that cost what would be comparable to fielding an army of 1,000 for one year. Between a busy schedule of bear-bating, acrobats and jousting, actors dressed up as mythical figures jumped out of shrubbery and coaxed the queen into side quests. One such account retold by LARP historian Lizzie Stark featured the appearance of a merman, a moveable floating island and a twenty-four-foot-long mechanical dolphin with a six-piece band hidden inside it. In contrast, the beginnings of the modern iteration of LARP were much more humble. In 1977, college student and Tolkienite Brian Wiese founded “Hobbit Wars,” the earliest recorded instance of a bunch of nerds running around and whacking each other in the head with foam swords.
We thought we had signed up for just that. We thought we had paid the organizers 250 dollars each to hit each other with counterfeit weapons for a weekend. For a while, that was what we got. First, there was the lull of registration, a pep talk about inhabiting a heroic version of yourself, and an explanation of raid tactics (two blows to the limbs or one to the torso takes out most roaming creeps and you can search their dead bodies for treasure by pointing your foam sword at their neck and saying “searching”). Once they let us loose, we scouted the campsite for creeps. We were going LARPing. Before we knew it, we were striking down thirty or forty year-olds in squirrel masks. One particularly devious-looking pair of creeps approached us, asking for free hugs in humanspeak, but our rogue shot them in the face — a flawless padded arrow right on the rubber nose. They coughed up three silver coins each.
By sunset, the 4-H camp lodge at the bottom of the map transformed into a tavern of sylvan charm. Inside, all forty LARPers mingled with the eighty-two staff that populated World’s Edge. Tavern maids in impeccable tavern maid corsets maneuvered their hips between wicker chairs, setting down pewter platters filled with salami, seedless grapes and Monterey Jack cubes. I, the bard, scouted the tavern, gathering quest information. I was looking for the Jewel of the Waves. Others were making small talk, despite the fact that the only social lubricant available was grape juice (since of course, Otherworld is strictly substance-free). I spent a moment or so flirting with Sunny, a local schoolgirl and mage-in-training. I watched her play with the moonstone necklace around her collarbone. This, I told myself, was the willing suspension of disbelief.
Our storied encounter with the Makai took place the next morning. After breakfast at the tavern, we stumbled through World’s Edge, looking for leads that might point us towards the Jewel. The Makai were the first group we came upon. In short, they invited us to partake in their cultural coming-of-age ritual, during which Cyrus, with his limited understanding of Otherworld rules, snatched a pouch from some rune reader’s utility belt.
Inside that pouch was a Love Potion, an Enchanted Tiara, and Elfear Leaf — quest items necessary to other participant’s quests but not our own. The Makai retaliated. They stormed the tavern during lunch. Everyone watched as they knocked over our plates, pointed long felt spears at our faces and told us that we boys took something valuable from them and that we boys had to give it back. We returned the items. They left.
We sat in silence, in guilt, and with a sense that something greatly unjust had been brought upon us. Yes, we were that group of rambunctious, haughty, self-indulgent twenty-something year-old jerks. The boundaries of the rules had been unclear! Cyrus was in character when he stole the pouch; he was a rogue. (The Oxford Dictionary of English labels him by definition as a dishonest or unprincipled man.) How was it even fair for the Makai to bring weapons into the tavern — page 44 of the handbook forbade it!
My vengeance shall take the form of sheer skepticism, I told myself. I scouted World’s Edge with eagle eyes and began to dismantle — in my head — the game architecture that Otherworld purported to uphold. If I couldn’t win the game in Pomfret, I would win the game in my head. I poked fun at the amateur acting. I contemplated demanding a refund when we were the only participants not attacked by rowdy men in wolf masks. I listened to a broken tree’s whistle, and imagined it collapsing on top of the potion merchant’s shop.
But as the afternoon dragged on, our quest brought us back to the Makai. They had in their possession Leatherleaf, an herb used for bringing back the dead. And we needed it. We couldn’t complete our quest without it. We considered charging and razing their hilltop camp, but remembered their foam spears. So, instead, we apologized. We trekked all the way back to the camp, where they asked that we wait in silence for an hour to contemplate our wrongs. After an hour of poking at an ant’s nest, we gathered in a circle and every single member of our party — criminal or not — was asked to speak for himself. I had to apologize twice, since they found my use of the pronoun ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ insincere.
The obvious question then is — can you really build a universe that demands of its participants to adhere to one set of physics and a separate set of morals given causal determinism? The obvious answer — no.
A less obvious question is why did they have to make us feel like children? The weapons, the butchered dialects and the costumes were all part of the game. But guilt, boredom and frustration were not.
Our emotions and thoughts and sensations — those that we cannot simulate or role-play — form the basis of humanity. The industry of LARP, then, is built on a fine balance between the parts of humanity that we can simulate and those we cannot. Clothes, props and fictitious character story lines facilitate the suspension of disbelief but certain aspects of your inner life you don’t suspend and you can’t disbelieve.
All of this is not to say that I did not enjoy myself in Otherworld. Nor is it to say that I left World’s Edge soured and more skeptical. On the last night, I found myself in the corner of the tavern. All the parties of Otherworld had joined forces to repel our final arch-enemy. My bandana was soaked in sweat and I had run out of potions to heal myself. Our mission was successful but I was dead. And in that corner all I had was my quill. I scribbled down the battle lore and other stories in my leather bound notebook. I wrote of Sunny. I wrote of the Makai. Valor, triumph and adrenaline filled my veins and I was desperate to note it all down.
I might have stopped believing in Otherworld, but I kept writing. The bard must tell his tales. Perhaps humanity has its value in the spirit of its report. I left World’s Edge without exacting my vengeance. But at least I had my notebook and I had my story. This story I tell.