It was a warm, typically humid Saturday, and I was walking briskly towards a piazza in Sunplaza Park, a wee bit tardy for a… peculiar meeting. Only a handful of elderly joggers dotted the park that afternoon, an expansive, quiet refuge of green just across from the hustle and bustle of Tampines Central.
But the tranquility was about to be pierced by the whoosh of arrows, the clash of swords, and the invoking of mystic powers necessary to cast magic missiles. Well, hurled bean bags — this is LARP after all, the first (and largest) session Singapore has seen this year.
The art of LARP
LARP (or Live Action Role Playing to the unenlightened) is an obscure pastime involving a group of participants who assume the mantle of mythical characters within a fictional setting. Think video games, but fleshed out in real life, or a renaissance fair that’s less Shakespeare and more Dungeons & Dragons.
On a surface level, it’s one of the nerdiest things that you can imagine. It’s immersive improv theatre with no audience but the players themselves, and the players co-create high-fantasy narrative storylines through their own actions. Depending on the LARP’s plot committee — the people responsible for crafting the story arc and the rules that come with it — scenarios can go into genres such as sci-fi, steampunk, Westerns and even space operas. More often than not, LARPs adopt traditional medieval fantasy scenarios. You know — elves, dwarves, wizards, knights, etc.
Sludge metal outfit Mastodon’s music video for ‘High Road’, an excellent tribute to all the weirdness of LARP.
There’s a distinct cosplay element, of course, and LARPers often deck themselves out in their finest costumes and accessories appropriate to their character. Not everyone has the skills (or the money) to come up with legitimate ensembles, so the quality of outfits, armor and weapons range from “Academy Award for Best Costume Design” to “duct tape is my best friend.”
As you can well imagine, when grownups dress up, arm themselves with prop weapons and pretend they’re actual centuries-old wood elves with fantastical names and backstories, LARP can be weird and awkward as fuck. But that’s part of its quirky charm.
Tales of Eredyn
The only way to understand a culture is to fully immerse yourself in it, and what better way than to dive deep into the local LARP scene by taking part in the first major LARP sesh of the year? Armed with thousands of man-hours playing role-playing video games and just enough knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons to know what “roll for initiative” means, I reached out to the only local LARP guild I could find online — a group called Tales of Eredyn.
These guys mean business, too. The plot committee has produced an exhaustive guidebook that details their own currencies, races, job classifications, and areas of the body that are legal “hit zones.”
A core group of just five people are involved in Tales of Eredyn, a collective dedicated to bringing LARP to the mainstream. And dedicated they are. So far, they’ve sunk about SG$4,000 into the effort, with the money going toward purchasing various props and tunics for players, gazebos for shelters and a storage unit to store all the stuff in between outings. That’s quite a bit of coin for a hobby that entails play-acting made-up fables.
Din, a 28-year-old finance administrator who co-founded the collective, walked me through the introduction. The session I attended was the prologue to a planned campaign that would take an entire year to complete, a relatively simple medieval fantasy plot line that pits humans against vampires. In character, he was Aggraviel, a Shieldman warrior class which emphasizes defense and power over everything else.
Aesthetically, he’s tricked out AF, with self-crafted plate armor and an impressive kite shield made out of foam. A white-and-gold, shin-length kurta (a Pakistani-style robe popular in the region) forms his inner attire. It’s a nice touch, despite the combination of Western-style armor and subcontinent fashion not being particularly historically accurate. He’s planning to purchase some proper chain mail soon, he tells me.
We were standing in the amphitheatre of Sun Plaza Park, the setting for the fictional town of Evergreen, near the Western border of Ethuil Kingdom. The town holds an inn, a tavern, a blacksmith’s store and a magick emporium — all of which were really just tables and chairs sheltered by portable gazebo canopy tents. Unfortunately, due to an issue with gazebo supplies, the town’s inn would have to be an open-air establishment that day. We imagined that dwarf contractors simply had yet to complete renovations to the roof.
Din directs me to Shina, his 22-year-old fiancé and fellow Tales of Eredyn co-founder, whose day job is a barista. Or rather, Elliase, a bow-wielding vampire commander holding on to a laptop because she needed to register the players in their database.
“What’s your character’s name?” she asked, eyes shining from behind sparkling blue contact lenses.
Strangely, this was a question that stumped me. I already had a great backstory for my character: an Archmage Archivist who accidentally magicked his way into a parallel world and wants to learn everything about it — hence the constant whipping out of a notebook and a pen I got for free from Uber. But I hadn’t thought of an appropriate name, and it didn’t help to be put on the spot.
“Er… Doom?” I meekly offered.
Presumably disappointed by the utter lack of inspiration for the moniker, she pointed me to a bench behind her, where a bunch of tunics in different colors were laid. This was the basic layer of costume everyone had to wear, which came along with a belt to hold everything together.
Allen, one of the chief writers of the LARP campaign, told me that the nice kimono-ish robe that I’d specifically worn for the session had to go. I countered that it was part of my outfit as a (fashionable) sorcerer, so he let it go.
Yeah, I was a motherfuckin’ mage, son.
A friendly dude who looked like a Malay Hannibal Buress tended the tavern, handing out sweet mead (cans of orange-flavored 100 Plus) to the thirsty as more LARPers slowly trickled in to the amphitheatre. With me included, there were 11 participants, which, according to Din, qualifies as a pretty decent-sized LARPing crowd in Singapore.
The players (mostly dudes) all seemed to know each other. Most of them first met years ago through BattleLine, a different LARP collective that conducted sessions with simpler mechanics involving teams battling each other in a field. The story goes that some of the regulars in BattleLine wanted something that entailed a deeper aspect of role-playing and questing, so that faction spun off to form their own collective: Tales of Eredyn.
“We wanted to create a more immersive game — something that’s common overseas,” Allen tells me. Having studied in Australia and participated in LARPing there, he wanted to bring more advanced levels of the LARP format here and help expand the concept in the local community.
As much as the players wanted to get started, the organizers — now in character as town chiefs, military commanders and other top dog roles — first had to lay down the ground rules.
Din, as Aggraviel, became the fencing teacher, taking each participant through some basic sword training. No hard thrusting of (foam) swords, no hitting the head, and definitely no aiming for the crotch. After that, it was time for some advanced class training, so I was off to mage school to learn some spell casting.
Raihan, an impressively bearded 38-year-old and fellow mage inductee, was playing up his character of Smilin’ Jack. He’s a shaman who’s probably also into hacktivism judging from the Guy Fawkes mask.
“Oh, I’m just interested to check out and support other people who are doing these things,” Raihan/Jack said, in between bouts of yelling arcane mantras, when I asked why he had joined.
The man would know all about the importance of community support — he’s the co-founder of Void Deck Games, a startup that creates immersive “real-life video games” much like LARPing.
Folks might remember that Void Deck Games were the organizers of the much-hyped Pulau Zombie event last year, which was meant to place participants in a 13-hour zombie apocalypse adventure on St John’s Island. Alas, Pulau Zombie was forced to cancel when they failed to obtain the necessary permits from the Singapore Land Authority to hold what would have been the country’s biggest-ever LARP outing.
We were provided with a sheet of paper containing magic spells — a basic “mana” missile spell that deals two units of damage (all players have five health points). An average attack would go something like this: You’d shout “By the power of arcane might, I cast mana missile,” then do a bit of hand gesturing, then toss a blue bean bag at your target. Eat your heart out, Ian McKellen.
Our 26-year-old magic mentor was known as Silphimore, an esoteric fellow named Zam in real-life, the dimension in which he manages a local McDonald’s. Zam seemed a bit under the weather that day, as he kept coughing into his facemask. Decades of studying the dark arts can clearly take a toll.
While we magicians practiced our incantations, other players were doing training of their own. A ranger was shooting targets with her bow and arrow, while swordsmen practiced sparring with each other.
After a bit more training, we were finally briefed about our first quest. The details are a bit foggy, to be honest, but it had something to do with a human scout who went missing and our need to search the outer vicinity of the park’s amphitheater to retrieve a lost message. Teamed up with a duelist, a berserker (sort of a rampaging Viking-style warrior) and an archer, we ventured forth beyond the safe sphere of Evergreen and into the wild.
The wild, however, turned out to be a relatively short distance before we arrived at a sandy exercise pit. Some digging uncovered the message, a long piece of prose that honestly didn’t make much sense to a novice magician. But it wasn’t long before another party of players came sniffing around, hoping to read the scroll as well.
“What canst thou offer for this exchange?” I asked, risking a bit of improv to liven things up.
We were all on the same side really — but amazingly, everyone played along with the sudden animosity in the air, including a guy on their side who suddenly started to move behind my party, with a “dagger” out.
“I don’t trust that rogue scoundrel,” one of my group actually said out loud.
“I’m a rogue, of course you shouldn’t trust me,” he countered, waving around his, um, roguish armaments, which consisted of plush throwing knives and chakrams, and a DIY dagger that looked a bit like someone had wrapped duct tape around a rolled-up newspaper.
Some tense negotiations followed, but in the end, we all agreed to take the recovered scroll back to town and demand a just reward for our efforts.
Unfortunately, when we got to the town, the scroll was nowhere to be found. Suspicions raised, we all ventured outside once again to look for it again. That was when our strained alliance became too much to bear and an all-out free-for-all suddenly erupted. Padded arrows smacked bodies, and people were felled by swords. Me? I was so confused by the sudden turn of events that I simply threw bean bags at anyone who looked at me funny.
Impressively, despite the confusion, no one broke character.
As it turns out, the dude who was holding onto the scroll accidentally dropped it somewhere. Of such simple mistakes do fetch quests turn into battle royales. But what fun.
Town portal, town battle
As amusing as our melee had been, the thrilling climax of the LARP session was to arrive later in the afternoon: an epic showdown in the middle of town between humans and vampires.
The aim was to have your team’s flag up in the middle of the amphitheatre for a duration of 10 minutes to win the game. I was on the side of the humans, a team that included a sprightly 42-year-old by the name of Zonsoul, who wielded a bow that looked like it was sculpted out of bone.
Easily the oldest dude in the group, Zonsoul was also the most enigmatic. His level of joviality was only matched by his level of energy, and he was constantly scampering around the fringes of the play area displaying his impressive archery skills, so I never got the chance to get his origin story. From what Din tells me, he’s a regular in their LARP sessions, though not much else is known.
But he was on my team and that’s what mattered. The opposing side had a similar-ish party balance, with a mage, a swordsman, a ranger and a rogue.
When the signal went off for the battle to begin, the other team must not have gotten the memo, because we already had our flag up by the time they strolled into the square. No deep character arc was required for what followed: a head-to-head skirmish with make-believe abilities, weapons of war, and a whole lot of flying bean bags.
Players whose life points were depleted had to run back to their respective starting points and count to 10 before rejoining the fight. The organizers sat by the side and helped keep score while counting down the minutes the flag had stayed aloft.
While passersby wondered what in Diablo’s hellgate was happening, I was getting pretty worn out from all the constant dodging of arrows and sprinting from blades. A palpable sense of outright nerdiness to all the action was prevalent, but damn if it isn’t more fun than getting your cardio on a treadmill.
In the end, ’twas the humans that prevailed. Huzzah.
Hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
The LARP outing probably wouldn’t have been this entertaining two years ago, when Din, Shina, and Zam first formed the idea to hold their own LARPs. After a couple of decent sessions held at Fort Canning Park and Hong Lim Park with even fewer props, the team went on a hiatus for about eight months to revamp their system, pulling in more experienced players like Allenn to help with ideas and organisation.
Surprisingly, LARPing as an activity isn’t deemed to be a sad, weirdo activity by the friends and family of the players I queried. Unlike the treatment that can be faced by LARPers overseas, the participants here are regarded as well-adjusted folks who just have a slightly eccentric outdoor hobby. Din’s older relatives, for example, think that he’s just going out to play games and hang out with friends. Which, in all fairness, he is.
The biggest challenge, however, for the Tales of Eredyn collective is that they don’t yet have sufficient manpower to help pull off the elaborate logistics of it all.
“It’s not only about finding enough people to help set things up or become (non-playable characters); it’s also difficult in finding like-minded people with the same drive and goals as ours,” Din says.
For more experienced organizers like Raihan, Singapore’s lack of available land area also represents a challenge.
“The problem with Singapore with these kinds of things is just… space,” he said. “It’s tough to get a cool location with the right mood and vibe.”
For his part, Allen just wants LARPing to be self-sustainable. “It’s very expensive to fund, and we’re a small group,” he says, expressing hopes of getting more team members and recurring players to expand the game.
What the team intends to do for future LARP outings is to charge participants a nominal fee of SG$30 — a fair toll, considering that basic costumes and props are provided, with all the vital behind-the-scenes planning, like scouting for locations, furnishing plot lines, and obtaining permits carried out by the organizers.
Din ambled back to the amphitheatre, looking forward to casting off his cumbersome armor, already unbuttoning the top few buttons of his kurta. Allen then called him over to the blacksmith’s store because a couple of players wanted to commission Din to make some kite shields for them. Others mingled in the (open air) inn, slowly easing out of their characters and chatting about the latest video games they were into. The shopkeepers had already abandoned their posts, and Din took to the stage to engage in a casual joust with a man in Taekwondo pants who was simultaneously wielding two swords, mentoring him on advanced techniques.
There’s a great quote in a WIRED article last year from Ben “Books” Schwartz, a LARP veteran for more than a decade.
“So much of adult life is about LARPing, whether or not people realize it. When you take on a new job, you have to learn how to play that part, you have to learn how to act as that job. When you are in a new social situation, you need to learn, ‘What are the social rules? How do I process this? How do I navigate this social environment?’ And all of the skills that I learned LARPing, all of the things that I learned about how to put on a new identity, how to navigate a social environment, those are just as relevant in my daily life as an adult as they are when I was LARPing as a superhero or a werewolf or anything like that.”
It’s understandable that the whole rigmarole may appear peculiar and outlandish to outsiders. But for one who was so readily welcomed into the fold that day, the quest for LARPing to take root and grow here suddenly doesn’t seem so inconceivable.
We’re just not ready to lay out the cash for chain mail just yet.