Magic Kingdom: Why Live-Action Role Playing is one of Denmark’s Most Popular Pastimes

A journey inside the creative, challenging, dark heart of larp—Live Action Role Playing—in Scandinavia. Featuring foam weapons, fake scenarios, and some very real emotions.

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Nathan Thornburgh / Roads & Kingdoms

Copenhagen, Denmark. May 09, 2012. Roads & Kingdoms editor Matt Goulding, in full ogre costume, participates in a medieval-themed larp (Live Action Role Playing) performance hosted by Rollespilsfabrikken, one of the largest Danish larp organizations.

This year’s Comic-Con is over, and withdrawal has surely set in. Where else for fans and celebrities of the comic and fantasy world to meet in the (sometimes alien) flesh? How else to find out what Luke Skywalker thinks about Mitt Romney? or hear Gollum drop f-bombs? Where’s a thoughtful person with a love of narrative and a nerdy streak to go now?

One suggestion: Denmark. In the United States, the big Comic-Con comes just once a year. In Denmark, fantasy and role-play is a year-round obsession. It’s called larp—it used to be an acronym for Live Action Role Playing, but is popular enough that it entered the language as a standard noun (or verb)—and it is said to be the third most popular pastime in the kingdom, behind soccer and handball, but ahead of basketball and everything else. According to Lizzie Stark, author of Leaving Mundania, a book about larp culture in the U.S. as well as Scandinavia, Denmark is the global hotspot for the activity, with over 100,000 participants. Not bad for a country that has fewer people than the state of Indiana.

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What does larp look like? It depends. In its most mainstream form, it may look a lot like U.S. hobbies like Civil War Reenacting or Renaissance Faires: dress-up and role-play for adults. Lord of the Rings is a big influence, with some of the best-attended larps featuring scores of orcs and elves and meticulous recreations of the tunics worn by the knights of Gondor. On a typical weekend larp in Denmark, you might see anywhere from a few dozen to several hundred larpers, dressed as their favorite characters, smashing each other with boffers (foam weapons) while improvising a larger combat scenario that uses Tolkien’s world as a launching point.

“After Lord of the Rings came out, instead of playing cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, kids were playing orcs and elves in the backyard,” says Claus Raasted, a co-founder of Rollespils Fabrikken, one of Denmark’s leading larp organizations. “And then they found that there was this whole community out there doing this, saying here’s your foam sword, here’s your elf ears. And it might not look as good as the movies, but at least you’re in it.”

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It’s that participatory aspect that gives larp its saying power in Denmark. The Danes—is it because they live in such a small country? Because they are otherwise abused by the long winters?—are a gregarious and trusting people. And the level of person-to-person engagement that comes from playing out scenarios, like video games but with real people, has a broad appeal.

In the U.S., “there’s sort of this no-touching rule,” says Stark. “We have different physical boundaries in the U.S. I don’t think we trust each other. That’s the thing that blows me away in the Nordic scene: how much [game] managers trust each other.”

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That goes doubly for what is known as art larp or progressive larp. Far from the simple hack-n-slash of a combat scenario, Nordic art larp is designed to challenge, even offend. The goal: something they call “bleed”, the way that whatever you learn or feel during the game can bleed into your life outside of the game. These intentionally disturbing, thought-provoking scenarios often have a political subtext. Take, for example, 2011’s Kapo, which functioned a bit like a modified Stanford Prison Experiment and was named after the Jews who were brutalized into serving as Nazi enforcers in concentration camps. Players paid for the privilege of entering an Orwellian prison camp for 48 hours, where they quickly learned to abuse or be abused.

“We had people coming in who said before the larp that they would never ever, even as a game, do inhuman stuff,” he says. “36 hours later that same guy is dragging a girl’s head through muddy water, screaming at her that she has to work faster or else he’ll get no food.” If there was a lesson to the larp, says Raasted, it was to think about what it’s like to be caught up in the penal system of a paranoid security state, in places like Gitmo, where “morality is something you can’t always afford.” Kapo was, incidentally, funded in part by cultural grants from the Danish government.

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Kapo is far from the most controversial larp Raasted has been involved in. “Heroes of the Eastern Front” was a 2008 larp that saw children playing the roles of Communist and Nazi soldiers.That same year, “Motherland” envisioned an alternate history in which Germany had won World War II. Players spent the larp torturing each other or plotting to assassinate an aging Adolf Hitler. In many of these larps, the players and their actions, not a script, determine the eventual outcome. The bad guys often win.

Seen in that light, larp might be a sensible diversion for restless minds in Denmark, which was recently named the happiest country on earth. Reality is simply more pleasant in Denmark than in many other places, so perhaps escapism means digging for more complicated, intense human interactions.

For all my eggheaded enthusiasm for the dark side of larp, the one Danish larp I was able to participate in—so little time in the country, with no free weekend to do a truly adult larp—wasn’t supposed to have much bleed. It was a hack-n-slash with 200 middle-schoolers from a Danish church group, loosely based on a fantasy story they’d been reading, the Brothers Lionheart.

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Roads & Kingdoms co-founder Matt Goulding was the first into the fray. Earlier in the morning he was an ogre, which meant he had put on a rubber mask with a heavy burlap suit that stank of years of larp-sweat. The kids had been bused in from central Copenhagen, handed brightly colored tunics, and given a Braveheart speech of sorts. Group leader René Pedersen was in full warrior mode, yelling at the kids not to touch the swords yet, that first he was going to line them all up and hit each of them very hard (“I think he’s kidding,” whispered instructor Nynne Rasmussen,though she later explained that one of the first things she learned as a larp leader was that kids like to be hit harder with the foam weapons than you think). Once they were pacified, the middle-schoolers were led in six groups to several stations, each with its own scenario and its own vaguely pedagogical purpose.

Matt’s station was meant to teach the kids courage, which means he ambushed them from a dense wood, roaring and swinging a massive foam pike. Time and again, the groups that had been looking for this monster turned heel with real fear when he came lumbering from between the trees, growling and smelling like a thousand gym socks. And it was also supposed to teach them compassion, because they would then be shown that Matt’s ogre had a dagger stuck in his back, and once they took the dagger out, he would stop being so angry.

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My chance came at the end, in the final battle of the day: kids versus adults. There were a dozen of us against a hundred, but we adults poured bravely over a ridge as the kids assembled below. By the end of the morning, the weaponry and the exercise had transformed these children from undifferentiated mumbling adolescents into their truer selves: hellions, heroes, cowards, and even some psychopaths. After my death in battle—a meek death, alas—I lay flat on the grass, the international death pose.

And then, from the middle of this church group, there appeared some bleed. One corpse robber of a kid tried to take my shield from me as I lay there, and as he did, another came up and tried to bludgeon me in my nether regions. These children of Danes, that gentle race of men, suddenly had the wild, wide eyes of horses in danger. “HaHA!” said the boy as he brought his foam sword down on my crotch. And then, in the first English I had heard from the kids all morning: “F–k you, a–hole!”

Larp had created a world, we were all living it together, and in that moment we all experienced the pain, and relief, and escape, of a little bleed.

This post is in partnership with Roads & Kingdoms, a new journal of food, travel and foreign correspondence. You can read their full Danish larp report, with gallery, here.