Taisia Kann & Viacheslav Rozhkov
Larp Instead of Communism. History and Evolution of Live Action Role-Playing in Russia
It is necessary to start with the point that Russia is a country with huge territory. It is quite hard, if even possible, to talk about larps in the country in general. The distance between east and west is so enormous that larpers mostly do not have a possibility to go to games on the other side of the country. That is why even when the authors of this article are able to say that larps exist, for example, in Vladivostok, it is not really possible to say what they are like.
Larps are played everywhere in Russia from Kamchatka to Kaliningrad. In 76 of the 89 Russian regions there are larp societies and larps take regularly place. Around 300 larps are listed in the Russian larp calendar, and those are only the larps with more than 50 players and which are open for everyone willing to participate.
Once a year a traditional big larp called Hobbit Games takes place in central Russia, where the representatives of different larp societies from all over the country play together.
Another meeting possibility for the larpers from different regions is at the numerous larp conventions. The biggest conventions are Zilantkon, which takes place in November in the city of Kazan and is visited by larpers from the European part of Russia, the Ural region and the cis countries, as well as Sibkon, that takes place in February and gathers representatives from Ural, Siberia and the Far East region. Besides, there are a number of large regional conventions with between 400 and 1500 participants. There are also some special game master conventions that emphasise theory and practice of game design.
As the most popular type of larps in Russia are open-air games, which are normally played outside the cities in the forests, this article will mostly refer to this type of larps. If not, the opposite is mentioned.
And So It Began…
The start of the larp scene in Russia was among official clubs of science fiction fans that existed in the 80s in the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union there was quite a rich choice of native and sometimes translated science fiction literature, but the genre of fantasy was absolutely unknown. In 1982 the first creepy translated edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was published in the Soviet Union. It was just one small book, and the story was three times smaller because of cuts, but it was enough to start the Tolkien-fever. In 1988, the full translation was published. Almost at the same time, in different cities of the Soviet Union a non-official community of Tolkien fans, based on these clubs of science fiction fans, sprang up. From 1987 to 1989, small games were sometimes organised by Tolkien fans. These games were tiny, and quite creepy, but they could have been already called larps.
Another source of larp culture in Russia was a movement of new-generation teachers, which was a pedagogical trend emphasising non-traditional teaching methodology. These non-traditional teachers started to use role-playing games in the middle of the 80s and had collected some experience before the larp scene appeared.
In the summer of 1990 the first so-called Hobbit Games gathered Tolkien fans from all over the Soviet Union in the wood near the city of Krasnoyarsk. About 130 players were involved in this larp. This larp is usually counted as a zero point of larp history in the former Soviet Union countries. As a side note, it is interesting to mention that most of the participants of this very first Russian larp still stay in the larp community.
Development of Larps in Russia
From 1991 to 1992, local larp communities in different cities appeared. Soon game masters started to use not only books by Tolkien as the background in organizing local larps, but also made larps based on other books, movies, history situations. In some cities future game masters had a bit of information on what the larps in other regions were like and then made their own games, with this inventing their own style.
In the first years the usual style of larps was a medieval-like war. Usual sources for plots were books by Tolkien, and stories like Robin Hood’s and other plots with strong dual-sided conflict. The normal final of the games at that time was a last battle or an Armageddon. At that time all main battle systems used in Russia were developed and tested. The armours usually used back then were an approximate re-enactment of medieval styles, for example chain mails and plate armours. The wooden swords and spikes were used as weapons.
This style of game had limitation since it was very battle-oriented and the world logic often did not allow other types of conflict solutions, as it is rather difficult for example to play diplomacy between orcs and elves. Starting with 1994, larps emphasising religious conflicts first appeared. Siege of Montsegur 1242 was a historical turning point of development in larp methodology. The priority was transferred from winning the battle to immersion or “catharsis” – deep emotional experience of a player – as it is referred to in Russian theoretical discussion. The focus switched from team actions to individual role-play. In this period, larp plots made active use of religious ideas and historical subjects.
Starting in 1995, a new approach that regarded a larp as a model was in trend. The larps of that time emphasised complex economic models, trading balance and optimal management, whereas the medieval or fantasy environment was used as a background. In this period, games were not focused on emotions, being rather very much mechanical. However, this kind of games is able to stimulate players to act actively. Therefore, if new players are involved, this style is seen to be the most suitable. As a player is seen much more as a mathematical function playing a certain algorithm rather than a person, in model-style larps it is easier to involve players into the plot.
Concerning the popular backgrounds of that period, world history from ancient Egypt and China to 18th century Europe was brightly in use. In the late 90s, larps based on medieval Japan and Ireland got to be really trendy. The Japanese style has not lost its popularity through present times.
At the end of the 90s, the re-enactment community, which appeared in Russia as a movement within the larpers’ community, started to separate itself from larpers. Re-enactors are much more concentrated on historical authenticity of their props than on the character play. At present, re-enactors organise tournaments and festivals across the country. They are still counted as a part of the larpers’ community in Russia.
The next turning point in the development of Russian larps was in the year 2000, as inexpensive soft-air guns and other corresponding equipment started to be available. Besides, the easy availability of mobile phones allowed playing future technologies. New genres such as cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic and historical games based on local conflicts of the 20th century were established then. The style that stayed popular till today is Star Wars larps.
The invention of new genres does not mean that medieval or fantasy larps grew out of fashion. Russian larp history is not linear, it rather reminds one of a tree with branches growing in different directions simultaneously, as larp theory and technologies are developing.
In late 90s, model theory was dominating. In the 2000s, the main emphasis in larp research switched to plot building techniques, the so-called algorithms. The model school of larping was succeeded by the theatrical school and the stimulus school. In the early 2000s, the methods of organisation and management of large-scaled games were the popular discussion topic. The number of players of larps increased dramatically from 150-300 players to 500-1000. It required some larp management, larp logistics and plot stimulating techniques to be developed.
In 2004, the focus of many larps switched to culture. In the period from 1990 to 1993 Russian larpers played war, in the period from 2004 to 2007 larpers started to be more interested in playing cultural life. Historical games based on the environment of the 19th and early 20th century were in fashion. As a part of that trend, the larp society presented some amateur theatre productions and musicals to the general public. Also the popularity of historical dances was a trend of that time. In addition to the larp conventions a number of historical dance balls exist across the country. It is important to mention that Russian larp culture includes and integrates historical dances, larp photography and videos, larp music and surely fashion.
Since 2007, decorative fire arms such as cannons and muskets have been actively in use in larps. At the same time Russian larps adapted some elements of airsoft games. In 2009, the larp 16th Century: Step to Immortality took place in the Central region, whereas the navigation on the boats for 20 to 30 players each was the active part of the game.
As future and technology related games are the biggest trend nowadays, the most perspective development direction is the use of microprocessor-based electronics on larps.
Larp conventions in Russia started to develop in 1990. Convention culture was inherited from science fiction fan clubs. In fact, it is a demonstration of the achievements of Russian larp culture, where the representatives of different regions come together. Traditionally a convention’s programme includes theory and practice of larping, a presentation of next season’s projects, a ball, a medieval fashion show and a cosplay show (usually based on anime or techno style), a video festival and a photo exhibition, theatre and concerts, awards for the games of previous season, and chamber larps.
Larps and Commercial Game Industry
For a long time no commercial game company was officially working on the Russian market. Commercial tabletop and pen-and-paper games did not exist in Russia when larps started. Self-made or self-translated systems appeared in the mid 90s. The first official AD&D rulebook in Russian was published in the year 2000. The commercial game industry products never became really popular among Russian larpers. For example, Vampire games appeared just in the mid 2000s and never were a big success. The lack of influence of the official game industry on larps’ development in Russia can be considered as a reason for Russian larps mostly not having plots that remind tabletops. Mixed fantasy backgrounds are also not used at Russian larps; every larp is based on a specific world, mostly taken from a published book or a movie, with its specified situation, characters, races etc. For example, the situation on a larp when a Viking meets a high fantasy elf is not probable, because they are ‘from different fairytales.’
In recent times the commercial tabletop producers realised that larpers can become their target audience and are trying to increase the popularity of tabletops among larpers.
Campaigns vs. One Character – One Game
In Russia no long-lasting larp campaigns exist in any considerable numbers. The attempts to set one up cannot be called successful. Russian larp campaigns mostly die after the second or third game.
The only exception to this rule is the campaign Hogwarts Seasons which is based on the Harry Potter stories and has lasted for six years, and it is going to end after the plot of the last book is played.
The traditional yearly Hobbit Games larps that have been taking place for 20 years already are not a campaign, as the game master groups are changed yearly and the plots are not connected. These larps are more often based on The Silmarillion than on The Lord of the Rings.
The absolute majority of larps have their own unique background that is not connected to any larp before. Characters are created and played only for one larp that lasts several days. There is no possibility for characters to grow and to develop from larp to larp. In a situation when a character has been killed, most larps allow to get another role after spending several hours in the so-called “land of death”.
Based on the location Russian larps can be divided in three groups: chamber games, city games and open-air games.
Chamber larps are not mass. These larps mostly run for not longer than one day and rarely gather more than 20 players. These are mostly so-called “elite games”, whereby game masters and players know each other personally. This kind of larp can have very stylish ambience and deep psychological play. In recent years there is a trend to use chamber larps intensively to prepare larper groups for the big open-air games of a coming season. Besides there is a convention, LangCon, in Novosibirsk in Siberia, that is dedicated to this type of games.
City larps are not particularly popular. These larps are basically played using the city as their playground and have anything from the Nine Princes of Amber to the Mafia clans’ wars as a plot. Players just live their normal city lives, but when they meet each other they behave in-game. City larps are more playable in smaller cities where a big percentage of larpers know each other personally and have fixed places to meet. This kind of larps involves up to 50 players and can last for months. Nowadays a game called Patrol, which is a kind of extreme competition in city terrain orientation, is getting more and more popular and there are many larpers that are actively participating in this hobby. It is rather probable that city games will experience a renaissance in some years by combining the best methods of the Patrol game with plots and characters.
The absolute majority of larps in Russia are open-air larps. In Russia there are not so many castles and fortresses as in Europe. And those that exist are used by the state and are under state protection. That is why it is almost impossible to rent them. Though there are 18th-19th century palaces in older cities, and some of them are available for rent, they are mostly too expensive for larpers. Fortunately there are hundreds and thousands of square kilometres of free forests surrounding inhabited areas. By law, forests are state property and most of them are available for camping. However, in recent years larpers have started to experience difficulties with local authorities that prohibit holding larps on the territory that is under their control. In the Moscow region a considerable number of larps were cancelled or moved to the nearby regions because of problems with local authorities.
Frequency of Larps
The forest locations and the climate are definitely the reasons for most open-air larps to take place during the summer period. The chamber and city larps are played during the other seasons and are taken rather as an ersatz of open-air larps. In the big cities like Saint Petersburg, Moscow and Yekaterinburg several larps take place every weekend from May till September. Larps in there last rarely longer than a weekend. In smaller cities the situation is different. There are only two to five larps taking place every summer. However, most of them are almost one week long. So every larp becomes a long-awaited event and larpers get prepared more carefully.
During the “low-season”, larpers meet on larp conventions, tournaments and balls and use the time to prepare for the upcoming summer.
The making of an open-air larp usually takes a year. However, the larger projects are promoted up to two years in advance.
Number of Players
Open-air larps differ greatly in the number of players. The small larps, that concentrate on ambience, drama and deep psychological play, can involve approximately 50 to 70 players. The biggest larps gather more than 3000 players. Usual size larps involve 150-350 players.
There are quite a variety of larp genres in Russia.
The first invented and still the most popular genre is fantasy – starting with larps based on Tolkien’s world, continuing through the worlds described in Russian or foreign fantasy books, movies, sometimes even computer games, and ending with worlds created from the start by game masters. Fantasy larps make up about 50% of the larps played in Russia.
Historical larps (anything from ancient Egypt to the Vietnam War) are a particularly popular alternative to fantasy. The background for historical larps is inspired by a historical situation. Usually some players use real persons’ biographies as characters’ background. Of course the historical background influences the choice of costumes and props. Historical larps are not a re-enactment of the historical situation; players get their characters and game background and are free to act as they want. The most common mass historical larps backgrounds are Middle Ages and Renaissance. However, the history of the 19th century and the wars of the 20th century are also popular.
Cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic larps form the third popular genre. There are a countable number of players who prefer only this kind of larp. This genre becomes continuously more popular.
There are no unified systems of game rules in Russia. Every game has its own rulebook. Some fixed game masters’ groups use their own rules systems that do not change much from one game to another. There are also certain “unwritten” rules that are known by the majority of larpers. These rules differ from region to region. In recent years there is a trend of making games based on common sense and logic of the world that is used as a background, instead of a rule system.
Ways of Setting up the Plot
Russian larps are variable according to how much a plot is influenced by game masters. The number of games where the game masters set up a tough plot with lots of quests is not big. Russian larpers mostly prefer to have a lot of freedom in their in-game actions and often are quite irritated with game masters who constantly influence the game situation. Some larps are made completely free from prewritten plots, where the game masters do not constantly supervise the game process. In this kind of larp, the game masters set up the background and control the characters stories, but they interfere in the larp process only if something completely absurd happens. An example of an absurd situation that forces the game masters to interfere is a larp on 15th century England, where the Irish Republican Army was formed and started to act actively. These free from game masters’ control larps are especially popular in the Northwest region of Russia. Nevertheless, a large number of Russian larps make use of prewritten plots and npcs.
Setting up the Character
In most situations players in Russia are free to invent their characters’ background by themselves. Game masters have to be informed about the characters that are going to be on their larp. Fairly often game masters provide help or sometimes even control setting up the character. Situations when the game masters set up all the characters background by themselves are relatively rare.
Concerning swords and other fantasy-medieval weapons, it is necessary to mention that in Russia latex weapons (boffers) are not used. Larp weapons are mostly made out of hard plastic (textolite), aluminium or titanium. The older technology still used in some areas is to make weapons out of wood covered with tape or thermoplastic. Game armour is designed not only to look nice, but also to provide a real protection for the body. This forces gamers to produce armours that are very close to the historical prototypes. There are also a few larps where re-enactment steel weapons are used for playing. Relatively hard weapons and a mass of historical larps make the number of female larpers who fight very small. In larps based on a background that implies the usage of guns, soft-air guns with plastic ammunition are used. The use of weapons that are less safe than the weapons commonly used in Europe is possible partly because the game masters are not really legally liable for what happens in their larps. Some years ago several game masters’ groups started to insist that players make special short-term insurance contracts before the larp.
Living Conditions at Larps
As was mentioned already, open-air larps take place in the woods out of the city areas. That determines the living conditions at larps. Players use tents for sleeping, survive without hot showers and stationary toilets and use wood to build in-game castles. Some larp locations are out of reach of car roads, so it is impossible to transport many props. Furthermore, the percentage of Russian larpers who own cars is much lower than those in Europe. So players often use normal tourist tents and are mostly not able to transport furniture or other big props.
The usual prices for a Russian larp are much lower than prices in Europe. The normal price is between 3 and 10 euro depending on the larp. However, food is not included in the price and players should take care of catering on their own. In-game, all goods and services can be bought only with larp currency that cannot be exchanged to real money. In this way, the larp economy is made independent from the real economical situation of a player.
There are no studies on the amount of larpers in Russia due to unofficial status of larpers in the country. But to make the situation understandable, it could be said that in the city of Murmansk, with a population of 327,000, there are approximately 200 active larpers. The average Russian larper is in his or her mid-20s. Underage players are not rare, because some players start to larp when 15 or 16 years old. There are not many players older than 30-35 years old, since larping in Russia has the image of a youth’s and student’s hobby. The gender ratio in general is 50-50. However, in the Northwest region it comes to 40 females to 60 males, whereas in Central Russia, on the opposite, it comes to 60 females to 40 males.
Organisation and Public Relations
Though a number of larp societies and membership organisations exist in the country, they are absolutely not a requirement. There are an observable number of larpers who are not members of any larp organisation. The most important kind of larp organisation is fixed groups of larp organisers, who produce larps together year after year.
Concerning players, it is necessary to mention temporary teams that are often formed for going on a larp. Players in a team camp together, take care of their food and props together off-game, and they represent an in-game community, for example, a village or a royal court or a tavern etc. The background character stories of the team members are often connected, but this does not force the players to act together in-game. They are free to kill and betray each other – or entertain themselves in any other way. However, these teams are not mandatory, and quite a lot of players prefer to go to larps on their own.
Contact between larpers is usually maintained through the Internet, by personal relations or through institutions like the “larper beer on Wednesdays”. Larp conventions are also quite a popular means of information transfer.
Larp press has existed in Russia for more than 15 years. The numerous magazines have mostly very low quality of print and are sold within the larp community – avoiding official channels of press distribution. Larp press has never become really popular among the Russian larpers, most probably because of the competition with such a mighty media as the Internet.
Larping in Russia is not a widely known hobby. The general public has only a vague idea of larping. A number of negative press issues in the 90s and early 2000s did not really contribute to the positive image of larp as a hobby. The relations with the local authorities and press differ greatly from one region of the country to another. Whereas in some regions official larp societies receive funding from the state youth committees, in the others larps are almost banned and are seen as a dangerous underground movement. Most often, larpers are simply ignored by authorities and general public.
However, starting with 2007, the acceptance of larps by the general public has been increasing. For example, larpers are working together with universities and organising larps for students that aim to train and assess certain skills. A larp project based on a new concept of meta-game in cooperation with several universities has been successfully working for three years. The main goals of the project are the assessment of skills like analytical and organisational talents that are hard to assess in normal examination situations, and forming of an interdisciplinary team of people with different mental structures, where students studying business administration and different technical issues are brought together to learn to solve common problems.
Contacts with Foreign Larpers
The larp scenes of Russia and some former Soviet Union republics like Ukraine and Belarus are not really divided. Open borders, common language and common larp history that started in 1990 in the Soviet Union can be considered as the main factors for this deep connection. In spite of the modern political situation, there are also good contacts with the larpers from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. There are also close contacts with larpers from Israel, because of the large number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union among Israeli larpers. Contact with larpers from the European Union is still rare. The language barrier can be counted as the main reason, since there are few Russians who are fluent in foreign languages.
In Russia there are a number of Internet larp resources. Each project has its own site or, at least, community or forum. The most popular larp community at LiveJournal.com can be found here: http://community.livejournal.com/ru_lrpg.
The historically oldest and best-managed site about larping is http://larp.ru. In this archive of larp materials in Novosibirsk a lot of articles, photos and larp music can be found. The collection contains the materials that originate from the very beginning of Russian larp history.
Another larp portal, which provides a calendar, the geography of the community, a collection of videos from larps and a huge collection of links to other resources is accessible at http://www.rpg.ru. On this page some information in English can be found.
One should be aware that the information on Russian larp web resources is normally provided in Russian. Google Translate can help foreign researchers to understand the content.
The collection of larp videos at http://video.rpg.ru can be interesting for the foreign public in spite of language barrier.
Kann Taisia, The larps in Russia, online at http://www.mittellande.de/lager/mp2006/russia.pdf, 2006 [as Taisia Gelikh].
Rozhkov Viacheslav, History and evolution of Live-action roleplaying games in Russia, online at http://www.rpg.ru/rpg/204968, 2010.
Semenov Alexey, “Russian Larp History. The View from Saint Petersburg”, transl. by Olga Chestnokova, in Playing Reality, edited by Elge Larsson, Knutpunkt 2010 – Interacting Arts, Stockholm 2010 [online at http://www.interactingarts.org/pdf/Playing%20Reality%20(2010).pdf].
- The Authors
Taisia Kann started to larp in Murmansk (Russia) in 1998. She participated in larps in different regions of Russia and co-organised several events. Living in Germany since 2005, she collected experience by larping in various European countries and took part in numerous international larp conventions.
Viacheslav Rozhkov graduated at the Department of Applied Mathematics of Moscow State University. He is actively larping since 1992. Co-editor of the larp portal http://www.rpg.ru, co-editor of the magazine My Kingdom. Author of more than fifty articles about role-playing games. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Reference for this article:
Kann Taisia & Rozhkov Viacheslav, “Larp Instead of Communism. History and Evolution of Live Action Role-Playing in Russia”, in Larp Graffiti. Preistoria e presente dei giochi di ruolo dal vivo, edited by Andrea Castellani, Larp Symposium, Trieste 2010.