History of Live Action Role-playing Games - Early History

Early History

It is likely that childhood LARP games date back to pre-history, with the well-known games, "cowboys and Indians," "house," and "doctor" stemming from earlier historical and pre-historical equivalents in many cultures ("Athenians and Spartans", "hunting deer", etc.). Childhood LARPs tend to consist of very simple rules and reflect the surrounding culture.

Live-action role playing by practiced by adults, in the form of historical reenactment, has also existed for millennia. The ancient Romans, Han Chinese, and medieval Europeans all occasionally enjoyed organizing events in which participants pretended to be from an earlier age; and entertainment appears to have been the primary purpose of these activities. However, it appears that historical re-enactment only became a hobby in the 20th century,.

Likewise, adults have used live-action role playing as an educational or practice exercise for centuries, with mock combats being an important part of military training, and mock treatments and trials used to teach doctors and lawyers. It's unclear to what extent these have been considered "games." The Prussian term for live-action military training exercises is kriegspiel or "Wargames," a term that has entered English as well, although the contemporary military prefers to call them military exercises to distinguish them from games.

Another early stream of LARP tradition is the improvisational theatre tradition. This goes back in some sense to the Commedia dell'arte tradition of 16th century. Modern improvisational theatre began in the classroom with the "theatre games" of Viola Spolin and Keith Johnstone in the 1950s. Viola Spolin, who was one of the founders of the famous comedy troupe The Second City, insisted that her exercises were games, and that they involved role-playing as early as 1946, but thought of them as training actors and comics rather than as being primarily aimed at being fun in their own right.

G. K. Chesterton's 1905 book The Club of Queer Trades includes a story describing a commercial organization which stages LARP-like adventures for the entertainment of its customers. It's possible that this may have helped to suggest later ideas for commercial LARPs.

In the 1920s, Model League of Nations clubs formed around the United States, creating a style of live-action role playing that was not thought of as a game per se but was thought of as a recreational pastime. There is some evidence that Assassin-style LARP games may have been played in New York City by adults in the early 20th century as well. The 1920s also saw the beginning of role playing used for psychotherapeutic purposes, often called psychodrama. It was championed in the US by Jacob L. Moreno It was not thought of as a game, but the psychodrama tradition probably influenced LARP games as they later developed.

The 1960s saw the creation of fantasy LARPs (as distinct from pure historical re-enactments), which probably originate with the founding of the Society for Creative Anachronism in Berkeley, California on May 1, 1966. A similar group, the Markland Medieval Mercenary Militia, began holding events on the University of Maryland, College Park in 1969. These groups were largely dedicated to accurately recreating medieval history and culture, however, with only mild fantasy elements, and were probably mostly influenced by historical re-enactment.

In the 1970s, after the publication of the early tabletop role-playing game (Dungeons & Dragons) in 1974, Fantasy LARPs began springing up in many places somewhat independently.

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