Skip to content

Final Word: Thoughts from a Woman on Live Action Roleplay

2011 November 9

Hi, I’m Sarah and I’m a Live Action Roleplayer. Following on from a guest post we recently ran on the subject we got a few responses from other folk who enjoy the hobby talking about their experiences – including this response to the original post, which we ran yesterday. So we thought it might be a good idea if one of Team BadRep (that would be me) joined the discussion our guest bloggers have been having and wrote about LARP. Before I wade in with lots of personal anecdotes or analysis of game theory with respect to gender (and I can talk for hours on that), I thought I’d kick off by talking a bit about the comments from the original post.

The big issue appears to be around whether or not “LARP is sexist”, which is difficult to deal with because that’s a lot of games and a lot of players to tar with the same brush, whichever way you paint them. It is also, as one commentator pointed out, a little bit hard to seperate LARP and LARPers from the real world (where we all live), which IS sexist. Some of those sexist values are going to seep in, no matter how hard we try. And people do try. I talk to a lot of gamers and game designers about things I think they’re doing which might be seen as sexist, and a lot of the time those (rare) occurances are not being done on purpose. This doesn’t excuse it, but it does rather empower people who give a shit to improve things by talking about it more, and raising problems where they find them.

I think it’s really important to separate the design of a game (what it was intended to do) from the experience of playing it (how it feels to do it). This way, we can look at where and how a game may or may not succeed on being Not Sexist; after all, there’s a difference between a game being inherently sexist and those who play it sometimes behaving in ways which are sexist. I would argue that most LARP games are not desgined to be sexist, but that there can be sexist elements that occur within gameplay and that it is the responsibility of the player base as a whole – men and women – to root this out and set it on fire with extreme prejudice, as follows:

Get your fucking sexism out of my hobby. Now.

*Ahem*. Now, to business.

Live Action Games: an Action-Drama Love Affair

The subtitle for this is “why my cupboards are full of kit, costume and rubber swords for various pretend people”.

My own personal experience of playing has been very positive. LARP, for me, is about storytelling, play-acting, and a permission to explore different personas and world-views which I don’t normally get access to. I can also wear cool costumes, have magic powers and fight Epic Battles. That fact that I am a woman does not bar me from any of those things, although I would be lying if I said it didn’t colour my gaming experience.

Me with white, black and pink face paint looking serious

I’ve played sexist characters, such as a matriarchal tribal leader in Maelstrom who assumed that anyone of importance was female. I’ve played characters who were victims of terrible, awful sexism; I’ve played downtrodden and abused prostitutes. I’ve also played characters who used their looks and feminine charms to their advantage. Conversely, I’ve played characters who would consider such actions ridiculous and to whom a sword or a well-placed word was the correct tool to use. I’ve even played characters whose gender and sexuality was, for the purposes of the gameworld, almost entirely absent, such as a human slave in a world where humans are uniformly seen as cattle to their orcish, elvish and dwarvish overlords – my gender was as important to the other characters as the gender of a table.

In short, I’ve played around a lot with gender and sexuality, and LARP has been a big enabler in exploring those roles. My one “bad” LARP experience revolved entirely around the race of my character, rather than her gender, and in fact the person who delivered that bad experience was female. In my experience, men who LARP tend to be more concerned with not being sexist than men in day-to-day. Perhaps because the man who leers at me whilst I’m at a bus stop does not fear me striking him down with a fireball. Or perhaps – optimistically, but possibly, maybe – the chap who LARPs has a much broader experience of women being in charge than men in real life.Me dressed as in tribal costume with a spear and lion face prosthetics

So, what does LARP have to offer women? First, a bit of a health warning.  “Women” is a broad category which we at BadRep Towers want to avoid using in a way that assumes all women want the same things. They don’t. Fortunately, in LARP, as in life, there are options. Even more fortunately, there are often more options in LARP than there are either in life or in most fantasy and science fictions. One of my major complaints about the FSF genre is that we create these amazing make-believe worlds but then populate them mostly with men. All too often women characters are whores, witches or princesses – prizes to be won or challenges to be overcome. Check out the piece fantasy author Juliet McKenna wrote for us on the subject. LARP lets you, the player, take control of these stereotypes and challenge, subvert or even explore them. You can become your own hero in a fantasy world. Which means you get to tell your own story how you want.

Making LARP Work For Women?

I have also written, crewed and managed live action games. A quick rundown includes Odyssey, Winter in the Willows, Victoriana and some local systems, so I’ve got experience behind the curtain, as it were. I have noticed that I am in the minority. The vast majority of games are written and run by men – it’s much the same with anything nerd-based. I’m never quite sure why this is the case with LARP, given that young girls are almost magnetically attracted to games of Let’s Pretend and Dressing Up Boxes. I think that these little girls end up doing drama and the few boys that like dress-up (who often can’t do drama on account of it being seen as “girly”) created LARP to allow them to run away to a field, where no-one else could see them, and play dress-up. This is backed up by the fact that I often see young teenage boys at LARP events, but rarely young teenage girls. Any, even slightly more, scientific study into this would be appreciated.

With all due credit to the guys behind the Games Operations Desk (GOD – geddit?), there is absolutely a perception of the hobby as being profoundly white and male. This is not their fault. Let me repeat this: this is not their fault. What absolutely is their fault is any time when a game feels lacking in opportunities for women to enjoy it, and connect with the game as much as men. The absolute best way to work this out is to look at some game websites and then play the games.  Here’s what to look out for:

  • Game Background – This is the blurb that tells you about the game and the gameworld. It’s like the back cover of a book or DVD. Gender-aware games should include both male and female example characters in their background documents so women players can see that there are parts for them to play. Pronouns are your friend – there should be instances of “he” and “she” – or my personal favourite, “they” and “their” – I like pronouns that include everybody. Game blurbs often include artwork and photographs, which should have a good selection of all kinds of characters; male, female and sometimes neutral. If the blurb doesn’t, or if anything makes you feel “put off” because of how they have described themselves, then don’t play that game. If you’re feeling brave, email the game designers and tell them why: I’ve done this and the response was very positive, including instances where I’ve received follow up emails from other game designers going “are we gender-aware enough, can you help?”
  • Character creation – this is the way in which you pick what sort of a person you will play, and it is almost always the same for men as it is for women. There are rarely, except in games which have a specific built-in sexism (few and far between), situtations in which a woman cannot play a certain type of character. Unlike me, aged 6, trying to participate in a game of cops and robbers with the boys who lived next door, being “a girl” does not stop you from picking up a gun. Refeshingly, I have never seen a character creation form with a section for “gender” which then negatively impacts my options if I select female. Women are fighters as much as they are wizards, healers, leaders and politicians. I’ve also played in lots of games where women have chosen to play male characters, and vice versa.
  • There are all kinds of games; try several. There are big games and little games, games in fields for the weekend and games in a room above a pub for an afternoon. There are high fantasy games with magic, and gritty, realistic games with guns. Games for ten people and games for a thousand. There are games about fighting, games about battles of wits, games with long, complicated rules and systems, and games where you turn up and improvise your way along. LARP is becoming more and more a space to try out new ideas and new ways of playing around, many of which have their backgrounds more in theatre and performance than Games Workshop. There will probably be something that suits you.
  • Ask Other Women Who Play. There are, when you get into it, a surprising number of women who LARP. The common perception is absolutely still that it’s ‘a male hobby’, but the reality is different. There are also a large number of women, like myself, who are very active and vocal in the hobby, and equally active and vocal about getting other women into the hobby. Ask us which games you might like.

Sarah writes about designing and creating games and live performance over at and is unapologetic for this shameless plug.

Photos by

6 Responses leave one →
  1. north5 permalink
    November 9, 2011

    Thanks for rounding this up with a great article – and thanks for giving me, and others, a chance to wax lyrical about our favourite subject(s). :)

    I guess we can only fall back on our personal experiences of larp, and those of our friends – and by its very nature, these are going to be wildly different, between systems, characters, and even within the same event.

    I’m sad that some have had bad experiences at larp events, but I’d be the last to suggest that there isn’t a way to go before it’s free of unfair gender problems. (Of course I could say the same about my workplace, or the local pub, or even taking the kids to school.)

    Larp is a collaborative exercise, and after this I should make a renewed effort to hold game organisers, my peers, and myself up to as high a standard as we can manage.

    Personally, I’d like everyone with an interest to give it a go, and bring positive expectations and attitude – that’s the best way to make the hobby better. You might not like it – or, you might just love it.

  2. November 9, 2011

    I’m really liking the LRP series, heh.

    I wanted to take up something you said – that there is overwhelmingly a perception that LRP is a white male environment. I don’t think this is an inaccurate perception at all, and whilst a lot of work has been done in getting women involved, very little has been done with regard to involving people of colour. A lot of LRP games still use marginalised cultures and races as costumes and character ideas, for example, which is massively problematic.

    We could look much more at how we design and publicise games, and I think there is a lot of potential active work that we could do about this, which all involves accepting that it is the case.

    • Miranda permalink*
      November 9, 2011

      I agree with this – hands up who else is sick of awful old school Drow-type “evil and dark skinned” stuff? Or the assumption in artwork that high/wood elves are uniformly white?

      I’ve LARPed with people of colour in urban settings, but the galleries I searched for images to accompany these posts were a sea of white. Class plays a big role too as high fantasy kit is often expensive.

      Also, LARP is, I imagine, often potentially difficult for trans* players depending on how aware and considerate venues and organisers are being. The issue of ‘toilet segregation’ was brought up on another thread and I couldn’t help thinking this would be something many organisers would not consider in terms of trans* issues.

      • Stephen B permalink
        November 9, 2011

        Just as an almost-aside on High Elves and Wood Elves, two things:

        1) High Elves are often based on Angels, fairies or ‘the taller, paler shining ones who went before’ which is a common myth to countries all over the world. It doesn’t excuse their always-whiteness, but might explain the origins.

        2) Wood Elves are becoming much less white in many computer games such as “Neverwinter Nights 2” and the upcoming “Skyrim” ( – it’s prequel Oblivion had High Elves as a deep golden too). Some (and the ‘wild elf’ variant) are even described as having tree-bark coloured skin.

        I wouldn’t expect this to translate to larp too soon though. Mind you, I play several larps which involve full-face masks of Badgers or such, so again I haven’t seen the ones where one skin colour = evil.

  3. DavidG permalink
    November 14, 2011

    These have been a nice series of posts, and I must thank Zim, for making me aware of them. There have been some nice thought out points and I have been meaning to post something here, but as I am terrible at posting on the web ( I meander through posts, rarely spell check, and I treat punctuation as a garnish) its taken me a while to poke the keyboard.

    As one of the numerous white male lrpers I guess I could start by saying I have not been aware of any sexism in the hobby, but that would be untrue.
    I do not think it is an endemic problem, but it does indicate problems with some of the people playing and the social settings they come from.

    Part of the problem is one of education/training, we do have a lot of people in our hobby who may not be the most skilled or experienced at dealing with “real” person-to-person interactions, certainly its still something I see with people who are new to the hobby often it takes them some time to get to grips with the whole role-play thing (the hitting/spell casting thing they can figure out fairly quickly).

    Most recently I have noticed a trend of increased usage in conversation of what many would say are offensive terms, words for different ethnic groups, sexualities and derrog terms for woman (and men) are becomming more commonplace. This usage is leaking in from the real world quite baddly as is the “net humour” with extreme “jokes” about rape ect.
    Guildford train station is often full of a lot of school kids, and the use of “frape” “rape” “fag” “gay” “bitch” “ho” is rampant.
    Its like listening to a transcription from the chat box of some online-games I’ve played in.
    So its easy to see how it bleeds through into the hobby.

    Saddly unless people make it known that it is not acceptable then it does tend to get ignored, thankfully a lot of our lrp systems are getting better at self policing and on the whole I think we are not bad at educating and teaching those around us what is good and bad behaviour.
    Failing that Complain,complain,complain.

    As a game designer who designed a game where character(note: Character NOT player) gender COULD give you access to different abilities, and as someone who has played some quite offensive characters, I tend to be forgiving of IC sexism if it truly fits with the game world/setting.
    But it has to be more thought out than “RACE X: Matriarchal, men are slaves only used for combat and breeding”.
    Equally I think it is up to the game designers to make it very clear how nations/factions/tribes are run and live to many are quite vague and dance around the issue.
    Or just add a PR safe “everyone is equal ” stamp at the end.

    Generaly I think the LRP gender divide is shrinking, rulers of nations, evil masterminds, brain-less thugs, womanising/man-seducing/construct seducing heart-breakers, quiet scholars,explorers, thieves, murderers, Warriors and Peasents. All can be the domain of woman if they so choose.
    And as more systems increase their female staff roles, and modernise. Things can only keep getting better.


  4. seeherinthemovies permalink
    November 18, 2011

    Really a great article! I’m going to admit right now I’ve never actually participated in LARP games, but I’ve always found them interesting.

    I totally agree, by the way, that there should be a separation between the intention of the game design and the intention of the person playing. Also, just because someone is portraying a sexist character doesn’t necessarily the player is doing it to be sexist, but sometimes to point out the sexism of that character. What’s nice about LARP is that it allows you to live as so many different characters with different perspectives on issues, in this case specifically sexism and feminism. If anything, LARP can be effective in showing the struggles of sexism, objectification, etc. depending on how they portray their character in the game.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS