Thursday, April 26, 2012

Book Review: Leaving Mundania

Stark, Lizzie. Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2012. Paperback. +272 pages. $16.95. Release Date: 1 May 2012.

Full disclosure: I received an advance digital copy of this book for reviewing purposes.

Leaving Mundania was one of the more interesting books I've read in a while.  Being a geek myself, I'm familiar with live action role-playing games.  Many of my friends in college played, and while I never made it to an actual LARP event, I knew the basics of how to play, had my own boffer sword (think a homemade Nerf sword--a pool noodle carefully duct-taped around a PVC pipe), and enjoyed practicing beating the crap out of my friends with it.

I never went to a LARP event, because when you got right down to it, it meant camping and tromping through the woods, and well, I didn't want to go.  I've always been much more of a table-top gaming girl myself (which I loved doing with these same friends).  In the intervening years, the LARP that I knew has gone under, unfortunately, so my husband and his brother don't spend weekends "playing whoop-ass" (as my mother-in-law likes to refer to it).

This is the LARP I knew--going out, dressing up in funny costumes, and beating the crap out of your best buds with a Nerf sword while traipsing through the woods after "treasure."  It meant many weekends making swords and sewing costumes (We learned how to make spider legs out of pantyhose) and a lot of fun.  While I never went, I knew exactly what was going on, whose characters had done what, and what the plot was.

What I didn't realize until reading Leaving Mundania, is that is only one kind of LARP.

I suppose, in retrospect, I should have realized that.  After all, I've played more than one table-top RPG and they all come together different.  Star Wars and Star Trek play on two different systems (d20 and d6, respectively), while Dungeons and Dragons takes a different approach, and anything involving Cthulhu is completely different.  Stark moves through several different kinds of LARP, from the boffer weapon LARP, to one that exists in a Nexus and allows people to play any kind of character they want, to the Society for Creative Anachronism, Cthulhu, and the more intense and strange Scandinavian LARPs.

First of all, Stark gets credit for being a nerd herself, though she obviously didn't start out as a LARPing nerd (few of us do, after all).  She recognizes someone playing Susan from Terry Pratchett's Discworld, she cracks Star Trek and Star Wars jokes, and one of her chapters is titled "Cthulhu fhtagn!"  So what I really liked about this book was that Stark went into it with respect.  She even devotes an entire chapter to the misconceptions people have about LARPs, Dungeons and Dragons, and even Magic, after the 1980s and 1990s when parents were all told that these kinds of games were converting their children to devil worship, not realizing that a D&D game looks more like the 8-Bit re-enactment than something out of a bad Johnny Depp movie.

Despite her respect, there are a couple of problems--she highlights the polyamorous relationship of three players, which has very little to do with the actual game and is something that people who might be uncomfortable with LARPing to begin with could then use an an excuse not to get involved, if they were just exploring it based on Stark's book.  But I am assuming that the people in this relationship said it was okay to use their full names, as Stark respects the wishes of those she interviews and withholds their names, as they don't want to be outed as LARPers.  In the United States, she notes, LARPers can be outcasts even in the geek community.

What's of more interest to me was Stark's journey through LARP in history, which points out that entertainments put on for queens and kings of Britain mimicked LARPs.  She also spends some time with the military and the exercises they use to immerse soldiers as much in a real world combat simulation as possible.  And then she goes to Scandinavia to take part in more artistic LARPs that focus much more on emotional character development than anything else.

For all the time that Stark spends playing in LARPs and her conclusion, I'm still not sure that she would consider herself a LARPer, though.  This still feels very much like the tale of an outsider, carefully trying to negotiate her way through a strange, new society.  While granted, this may be true, I think I was hoping for an ending where she hadn't just gotten more comfortable with herself because she'd been around all these weirdos who had no problem dressing up, but an ending where she actually still felt like LARP would be part of her life.  For all the tales of acceptance and fun of the LARP community, it still sounds like she's not entirely comfortable with it.

And granted, that's okay.  LARP isn't for everyone.  And overall, this book really does open LARP up to more people.  If you're interested in learning about the different forms of LARP and LARPing, this is a great book to get you started.

Leaving Mundania - B+

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