As some of you may recall, I’ve had a pretty meh experience with the LARP group Darkon over the last few months and was hoping to find something else to fill the elf-shaped hole in my life. Well, good news, friends: salvation has come in the form of Knight Realms, a high fantasy LARP organization in rural New Jersey. Besides having overall better game mechanics, facilities, and cohesive narratives, the social aspects of Knight Realms are much more positive than what I experienced with Darkon. Although the rules can seem dauntingly complex at first, the structure of the game and the overall culture of the community is very accommodating to new players, and after just two events I’ve got a pretty good handle on the system and I’ve been having a stellar time.
The Knight Realms lore establishes an entire fictional planet’s worth of lands, nations, and people, but the gameplay takes place in the Barony of Travance, which is physically represented by a large, wooded campsite complete with period-style structures. Within Travance there are a number of countries, guilds, and families, many of which have their own statehouses or headquarters. Players can vassal to an established land, attain ranks and titles within the existing political system, form their own countries, businesses, or families, or remain completely independent. The game also has a functional economy: players can sell both physical items like costume elements and nonphysical items like potions (represented by cards) for in-game currency. Sometimes payment or bounty is offered for completing quests or defeating bad guys as part of the ongoing storyline. Having a self-perpetuating conflict, political system, and economy really helps to keep everyone motivated and in-character through the duration of the game, and the level of immersion is excellent.
Mechanically, Knight Realms functions rather a lot like a live-action video game. Unlike with Darkon, a player can be fully involved with Knight Realms without ever engaging in combat, or they can choose to do virtually nothing but combat, and the game is set up so that in both instances they will have a fulfilling experience. Combat itself is designed so that the physical abilities of the player are not reflected in the physical abilities of the character, which really levels the playing field for less athletic players. For example, my character is a wood elf, and although I, a clumsy human, can’t actually creep silently through the woods, I have a racial ability called “woodland stealth” that forces other players not to acknowledge me for limited periods of time when I have the skill engaged. Another crew member has chosen “gambler” as her profession, which allows her to have skills like charming other players into giving her money. The way this skill works is roleplay based, so once a character is charmed they are inclined to obey the person charming them. Outside the game, the player obviously knows what is going on, but within the game they have to roll with it.
Another important difference between Knight Realms and Darkon is that the player’s choice of race and profession has an impact on both roleplay and mechanics. In Darkon, race exists only ostensibly and has no impact on a player’s abilities or stats, and the limited number of classes affect only the player’s style of combat. In Knight Realms, players can choose from twenty-four races, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, culture, and abilities. They can also choose from any combination of thirty-four professions and a literally limitless number of trades, all of which also have in-game mechanics. Within those professions are an incredible number of skills and abilities that characters can learn to affect how they fit into the game.
My own character joined up with a pirate crew after being exiled from his isolated woodland clan. In just the two games I’ve played, the crew has signed a privateering contract with a major nation and taken several jobs including hunting human traffickers and re-stealing stolen goods. My official profession is “bounty hunter,” but because you can combine more than one profession, and because my character’s life has taken a seafaring turn, I’m going to start picking up the “buccaneer” skills as well. Most of our crew likes to be involved in some combat, but because we are all relatively low-level, whenever we accompany higher level players we work as triage escort to defend the healers while the heavy combatants do the bashing. Next game we and another crew plan to set up a long-term pirate encampment on a piece of land owned by the nation we’ve contracted with. Besides being cool for roleplay reasons, everyone involved is awesome and getting pretend drunk around a real fire with them will be rad. (We can’t get drunk for real, because it’s a dry event.)
More important than the gameplay itself, in my opinion, is the inclusive culture of the game. Because so many varied skills have valuable applications within the mechanics of the game, elitism is kept to a relative minimum, and heavy combat players don’t dominate the way the game functions. Although the “new player marshals” who supposedly exist specifically to help new players have a bit of a problem with being totally useless, other players are generally more than willing to explain things and lend a hand. The quests and operations are also scheduled so that new players have a good variety of low-level combat to be involved in and the high-level players have separate things to do, which allows everyone to participate. There are also non-combat or minimal combat means of solving certain problems.
The group of Knight Realms players is much more diverse in age, gender, and abilities than with Darkon, and players are much more cooperative and less competitive. There are also very clear rules to respect everyone’s comfort and limitations. Players are required to ask permission before touching other players in all cases, especially when searching an “unconscious” body for loot. Young players, players with disabilities, or players who have issues with combat for any reason can wear green headbands to indicate that other players may not physically attack them, only call damage like in a tabletop game. There is also a governing body of rules marshals who enforce sportsmanship and consent rules.
After being so disappointed with Darkon, Knight Realms has really turned around my opinion of LARP on the whole, and although it’s hosted about five hours from where I live, I consider it well worth the trip. After all, I’ve only been hit in the head once so far, and the dude was super apologetic about it.