Finding your way as a queer LARPer

The night before running the live action role-playing game entitled “The Second Age of Heroes,” Ben Schwartz, one of the story writers at The Wayfinder Experience, was approached by one of their younger campers. The kid was cast to play a student in a group of collegiate wizards. He was also the heir to a powerful noble house, but none of that was his concern: his concern was that his character sheet mentioned he had a crush on a male friend. Being straight, he didn’t feel comfortable playing a queer character. Mr. Schwartz told him he was welcome to change that detail if it was going to stop him from enjoying the game.

The next day, though, the kid came back. He said he had thought it over and decided that pretending to have a crush on a boy was really no different than pretending to have a crush on a girl. He’d stick it out with the character as written.

That detail ended up being a major part of that camper’s story the following nights. His crush was framed for the murder of a king, and he had to choose between sticking with his family during the chaos or rescuing his love interest from the hangman’s noose. He chose to save his crush—coming out to his mother at the same time. “I think, for him, it was an opportunity to go through a part of what someone else’s lived experience was like, and come away more empathetic,” said Schwartz, reflecting.

Most LARPs, or live action role-plays, are played out by adults; The Wayfinder Experience, or just “Wayfinder” as it’s known by most community members, is a live-action roleplaying camp that caters instead to children and teens. (Disclosure: I’ve worked seasonally for the Wayfinder Experience in the past.) The day camps tend to stick to more traditional fantasy—after all, with the average age being ten, participants are looking more to play with foam swords than embroil themselves in the emotional lives of fictional characters. The overnights, which cater mainly to teens, are a different story. Often they dispense with the basic Tolkienesque settings, running games in apocalyptic, futuristic and period pieces.

“The Second Age of Heroes,” an overnight game written by Ben Schwartz, was typical swords and sorcery in some ways, but it also placed an allegory for transgender characters front and center. “The Second Age of Heroes was set in a world where an enterprising necromancer began reincarnating the heroes of the kingdom’s golden age as angsty teenagers,” explains Schwartz. “But a lot of those heroes were reincarnated into bodies that were of a different sex than their previous ones. So you had the spirit of a legendary warrior woman in the body of a man.”

it was an opportunity to go through someone else’s lived experience 

LARPing is a fundamentally experiential medium, and a great one for self-exploration. Many of Wayfinder’s games give kids a chance to try on identities that they may not get a chance to in day-to-day life. Some, like the camper mentioned above, don’t find anything they want to hold on to besides the memory of a rollicking adventure and a little more understanding than they had before. Others, like longtime community member, staff-in-training and high school senior Joey Dragon, have found identities they’re much more comfortable inhabiting. “I identify as queer. My sexuality isn’t heterosexual, and I’m not cisgendered,” he explained.

Joey, who has been attending The Wayfinder Experience for six years, said that he realized he was bisexual three years ago. Recently, he’s accepted that he doesn’t identify as male, either. “I can’t point to any particular games or characters that helped me come to that conclusion, but I think the fact that I could play a character who was bisexual or gay, and realize that was something I felt comfortable with, really influenced me.”

At Wayfinder, the actual LARPing portion of camp usually comes halfway into the week; time before that is spent putting together costumes, developing characters, and building community between participants through trust workshops. This last bit—the trust within the community—is as important as any of the external trappings of the LARP. One of the two owners of The Wayfinder Experience, Corinne McDonald, explains why: “The reason we do so much trust work and community building before the game is so that participants feel comfortable and safe enough to fully immerse themselves. They let the danger and excitement feel real, and the whole time, even when they’re running through the dark, adrenaline pumping, they know they’re actually safe. They’re surrounded by friends.” The sense of community that lets participants know they are safe is the same one that encourages self-exploration in these games, and embraces whatever players find out about themselves.

When asked whether he intentionally writes in queer characters, Dylan Scott, another of Wayfinder’s story writers, said he did not. “Representation doesn’t really cross my mind. I just wanted to make something good that reflects the world that we live in, and that world includes queer people.” For Ben Schwartz, it’s almost a question of arithmetic: “I write most of the characters in a game as genderless, but with romantic attachments to other characters.” There are more boys than girls that attend Wayfinder; though the margin is not enormous, “by the math, a lot of characters end up being queer.”

You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender 

It’s a laid-back approach, not unlike the refreshing section on character gender in the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons rulebook, which reads:  “You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon’s image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a man. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.”

The Wayfinder Experience seems to be ahead of the curve in terms of queer representation, but the steps the camp takes to this end are hardly dramatic. It comes down to a simple notion: if you can play as an elf, a wizard or a werewolf, you can play as a gay man, or a trans woman, or anything else along those lines.

The Ballistic Shot image from Ben Gun via flickr. Other images by Kyle Perler.