Why is it called Theater LARP?

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A few days ago James Stuart started a very interesting conversation on Google Plus about the phrase “Theater LARP” (also sometimes called “Theater Style LARP”). He was confused about when and why it is applied. A number of people showed up to talk about the history of the term and it’s use today. Here are some excerpts I found enlightening about the history.

For reference, the phrase Theater LARP or Theater Style LARP is used in the Chicago LARP community I belong to as well as the Intercon community that’s centered around Boston (and it has been used in both for a long time, so many people use it who weren’t in the community before it was invented as a label, including me). In the original discussion I linked to this article by Nat Budin that gives a rough overview of the games the phrase is applied to in the Intercon community more recently.

Vivian Abraham:

I remember back in the day, I ran a Vampire LARP (before the Masquerade rules were out), and we ran it in an actual theater. Theater-style LARP was an easy way to convey to the folks who owned the theater that a) we were not going to be fighting each other with weapons in their building and b) this was an artistic sort of pursuit that they might find interesting and/or generally acceptable behavior. This was in the days way before LARP became as well-known. Most gamers didn’t really know what LARP was, much less non-gaming folks. Improv theater was the common ground we could build on to explain what the heck it was that we were doing 🙂

Mike Young:

ahem  When I coined the term “theater-style” back in the 90s*, it was to differentiate it from “adventure-style” larps. In adventure-style larps, the focus of interaction was with the environment, be it npcs, monsters, or puzzles.  Theater-style larps focused more on the interactions between players.

I believe theater-style was chosen because secrets-and-powers larps have a good deal in common with improv theater without an audience and it was the best term I could come up with that communicated what larp was to people who had no idea what I did with my weekends.

Since then, the concept of larp academia has spread and the definition and terminology of larp has expanded. But that’s why it was what it was back then.

*It is possible that I wasn’t the one to coin the term, but I was the one who popularized the concept of theater-style vs adventure-style and simulated combat vs live combat, and it still bugs me to this day when people conflate them and use theater-style vs live combat, which was never my intent.

Tod Foley:

I began referring to my 1991 piece “Ghosts in the Machine” as a “Theater LARP” years after it was produced, only because I saw other people using that phrase.  But between that and what people were creating by that time, there were numerous differences.  GITM had these features:

– Three distinct tiers of plot: the top plot was a simple two-way branching story; the second tier was a set of modular circumstances for random audience characters to pursue, these were written without resolutions and dropped in whenever the Stage Manager deemed them appropos; the third tier was comprised of very simple “problem-solution” sets which could be “solved” with relative ease.

– Yes, “Stage Manager”.  We also had a Director and a Casting Crew, because…

– Distinct functional differences between “actor characters” and “audience characters”.  The actor characters were semi-scripted and their plot arcs were mostly predetermined (except for the final branch).  Audience characters were pregens which were assigned based on a short Myers-Brigg test taken before entering.

– Cutaways. At key moments in the 8-hour show, the room would go dark and a spotlight would focus on one or more actor characters who would perform a short soliloquy or dialog scene.

In short, I’d say it was closer to theater than it was to LARP, except for the fact that the audience – who were all given characters to play complete with connective plot points, key information and play money – could mess with the story freely and pursue whatever ends they wanted on tiers 2 and 3.  But the word “LARP” wasn’t in popular usage yet.  When the show was produced I called it “HyperTheater”.

Steve Hatherley:

These are my reflections on why we ended up with the term “freeform” in the UK


Mo Turkington:

In my history in the early 90’s we used “theatre larps” as a differentiation from city larps, because they were less self-directed, more framed and often held in the theatre we ran versus the bars/pubs/coffeeshops/streets among the mundies.(Note: this  had no relationship to boffer larps at all, because we didn’t know they were a thing outside of reinactments or SCA, which we didn’t at the time call larp).

Years later theatre-style started to be used to  differentiate boffer larps from non-boffer larps. They included parlor larps, MET larps, single session story larps and theatre experience larps (like, say Tony & Tina’s Wedding or How to Host a Murder events).

In my mind the term is non-functional, and I never use it, for exactly the confusion you describe, but also for the cognitive distortion I get from my past use of the word, and for the stratification loadedway it sometimes is used (in a similar vein to “art larp”).

ETA: I used parlor larp up there retronymically. At the time, parlor larp wasn’t a term in place used to describe the thing I’m describing as being part of the theatre bucket.

Mo also offered this very interesting account of doing live improvisational dramas on stage for an audience in the 1990’s before the people involved would have known about “LARP”.


Mike Young also suggested that I look through the archive of rec.games.frp.live-action to try to trace the term.  

This is the earliest use I could find of Theater to directly label the type of a LARP (on Febuary 12th, of 1994) https://groups.google.com/forum/#!searchin/rec.games.frp.live-action/theater$20style/rec.games.frp.live-action/6ycc8Nuo6QM/LJKfCDo-U-QJ and this is the first use I could find for the full phrase Theater Style (on June 26, 1995) https://groups.google.com/forum/#!searchin/rec.games.frp.live-action/theater$20style/rec.games.frp.live-action/Z9EABNpeJmU/V7VoHuSq9gEJ .

I seriously doubt they’re the first times people in the community used those though, as there’s some discussion about theater and how it relates to the kinds of LARP people were trying to develop earlier in the messages.

Also notable would be that “Mind’s Eye Theater” shows up in messages before people start actually using either Theater or Theater Style as a general type. Wikipedia tells me that the first edition of White Wolf’s Mind’s Eye Theater was published in 1993.


In my attempt to look through the rec.games.frp.live-action archive, I also stumbled upon this account of the history of Theater Style LARP written by Gordon Olmstead-Dean in 1998.


(I was amused to see his mention of “The Live Ring Game” which was published in 1973. A game inspired by that booklet has been running pretty much continuously since the late 70’s in Wisconsin and I played in it in college. http://www.ringgame.net/ )

If anyone else has accounts (their own or from friends) of the early use of these terms I would love to add them.

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