What I Learned By Actually Roleplaying at Zombie LARP

Morris dancers. Hard as nails.

Morris dancers. Hard as nails.

When those of us who are non-gamers start telling somebody about Zombie LARP, the conversation usually goes something like this:

“Well, no, it’s not like, you know, proper LARP. I mean, we don’t really do any statistics or anything like that. We don’t even role play really. We just run around shooting NERF guns at things. It’s practically sports really…”

Then we’ll go on to explain in great detail this one totally awesome time where we outwitted a horde of at least 400 zombies, only to die tragically mere inches away from the exit. If you’re a better person than I am, you’ll resist the urge to make the accompanying sound effects.

This was pretty much my approach, until a fateful trip to the pub after the Station Zero game this year. We were having a good froth, and the conversation turned to Harry Harrold and his documentary film crew. This team didn’t just go into the game with themed costumes and a camera – they would talk loudly about what shots they needed, each of them playing a role. At one point they knocked over a zombie, then, complaining he hadn’t managed to get the shot he needed, Harry insisted they let the zombie back up.

By this point, much beer had been drunk, and we became absolutely insistent that we needed a theme for the next game. Going as a corporate team building retreat was one of our more successful ideas. Then, Alina did the foolish thing of suggesting a completely outlandish, comedy idea that obviously nobody was supposed to take seriously, to a table full of drunk people. [editor’s note: Alina wishes it to be known that the whole thing was entirely Matt’s idea and therefore everything that follows is his fault.]

That is why, for our first game at the Flexmas Zombie LARP our team was entirely dressed up as Morris Dancers.

Actually trying to play a role during a role playing game taught me several important lessons, which I’m going to share with you here, because I’m nice like that.

Role Playing Means You Care Even Less About Dying

A big part of the Zombie LARP ethos is that you are going to die. Not just in the wider, existential sense, but in the specific, some time in the next 45 minutes sense. As a survivor it’s important to take this to heart – winning isn’t about getting out alive, but about making sure that when you inevitably do die, it’s in a suitably awesome fashion. Of course, this philosophy hasn’t stopped me from dying screaming in a corner after some pretty cowardly acts in previous games.

Playing a character is different though. As we went into the Friar’s Walk Mall wearing ribbons and bells, we were pretty much certain we were going to be slaughtered mercilessly. As it turned out we’d vastly underestimated just how powerful melee weapons were and our entire troupe made it through the game pretty much unscathed. But our game plan had been: Step One – Form distraction to oncoming horde; Step Two – Die jingling. Because funny.

Role Playing Gives You Way Cooler Things to Say When Killing Zombies

There are few things as satisfying as battering a zombie to the ground while snarling “Hey-Nonny-Nonny Motherfucker!” Or during our round playing Organiflex – Bioflex’s nearest competitors – putting a gun to someone’s chest and saying “We’re going to expand our market paradigm IN YOUR FACE!” Pro-tip: It’s a good idea to think of your themed quips in advance of the game, as you’d be surprised how hard it us to come up with off-the-cuff remarks like that in the heat of battle.

Rule 0? What Rule 0?

Rule 0 (Don’t be a dick) is a good rule both for Zombie LARP and for life. But it’s a rule with a hidden sub clause. Nobody likes a dick – but everybody loves a good villain. And if you’re playing a character with back story and motives and a personality, they might as well be an enormous arsehole.

Now, it’s important to note that there’s a difference between pretending to be a dick, and actually being a dick. Roleplaying a dastardly character doesn’t mean griefing other players, cheating or trying to make the game less enjoyable for other people. It’s a question of whether what you’re doing is going to give other players stories to tell. After all, we all know that in a zombie movie it’s not the zombies who are the threat, it’s the slimy bastard in your survival compound who’ll screw everyone over.

Example: Shooting a player in the back = bit of a dick move. Pulling your gun on a player to bring about a tense Mexican stand-off, even as a horde of zombies is bearing down on you = villainous.

During my time as CEO of Organiflex, I engaged in all kinds of douche-like behaviour. I refused to shake hands with anyone, instead insisting that Tom, playing my office boy, did it for me. Likewise, I never shot a zombie if I could order somebody else to do it for me. I attempted to take over the Bioflex safe room, and in the process threatened to have a team of boy scouts shot. I ended that round by waiting just a little too long as the survivors fled to the exit, so that I could shoot the Bioflex representative dead. By the time I turned to leave, my way was packed with zombies, who I held off just long enough to put a cigar in my mouth.

With great evil, comes great responsibility. Which brings me back to our first lesson about role playing. Dying a noble, heroic, sacrificial death is great fun. I’ve tried it before. But you know what’s even better? Dying a karmic death that you totally had coming.

To read more about my roleplaying adventures, taking a look at my Christmas Zombie LARP Carol.