I've covered non-Croatian stuff on this blog before. Drachenfest, Mythodea, news from the regional larp scene (Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia), Nordic larp theories, Petra's interview with Claus Raasted, etc. Today we're having an interview with Michael A Ventrella, who's one of the people who basically invented American larp (which is not SCA or a battlegame group). Personally, I'm fascinated by just hearing all the different viewpoints and experiences. Anyways, there are really few people who've either been into larp as long as Michael or worked as hard making larp happen. An experienced role-player and GM and one of the founders of NERO, Michael is the owner of Alliance larp (formerly NERO Alliance), probably the largest group which split from NERO and one of the most significant USA larps. He's got lots of information and tips to share, so here it goes.
1. Thank you for your time! Could you tell us a bit about yourself and Alliance larp?
I was one of the founders of NERO -- New England Roleplaying Organization -- back in 1989. At the time, we were making it up as we went along. We had never heard the term LARP and in fact, made "roleplaying" into one word. It was basically "Dungeons and Dragons" live, and boy, did we learn quick that things that worked well on paper fell apart when done live.
After I wrote an article for Dragon magazine about the game, it grew tremendously. Soon there were copycat groups all over the place.
Later, there was a dispute about the ownership of the group, and I broke off to make Alliance LARP, which now has chapters all over the US and Canada. (www.AllianceLARP.com)
As for me, I am an attorney and I have a few novels out that take place in the world of the games ... but you don't have to know anything about the games to like them. In fact, most people who read them have no idea they are based on a game, which is how I want it. No one likes reading about someone else's gaming experience. (www.MichaelAVentrella.com)
2. What makes Alliance different from other larps?
Well, first, our long history. NERO is now run by someone who came along late -- whereas I have been running these games for almost 25 years now. Second, we have many chapters that all use the exact same rules, so you can create a character and have that character travel to new places and not have to learn new rules (unlike, for instance, NERO, where the rules can change depending on where you play). And finally, it is our insistence that plot is more important than anything else. We place a high emphasis on staying in character, being in costume, and not having every problem solved through battle. We're here to tell a story.
3. Based on how it's going now, what do you believe the future of Alliance larp will be like?
We're going through our rules now to make them simpler and easier for a new player to learn. Other than that, I just hope to have more chapters open up.
4. Some of us have seen the movie Monster Camp, portraying the Seattle chapter of Alliance. It is, however, almost 6 years old. Do you feel it accurately portrays what's it like in most Alliance chapters nowadays considering equipment standards, game organization, social dynamics etc.?
I have to admit I have refused to watch it, based on what others told me. They were not interested in doing a documentary about the game, and made us look bad, and I'm told the Seattle chapter did not run a game up to my standards. I'm afraid I would cringe if I saw Monster Camp. In some ways, I am happy it was when we were calling ourselves NERO Alliance before the got rid of NERO in our name. The people who were running our Seattle chapter at that time are no longer there. The Seattle chapter is doing wonderful things now, and I am very happy with them! Players love their work.
We had a nice short documentary done of our home chapter that was on the G4 cable network, and the Discovery Channel just did an hour-long documentary on us that should be shown in November or December.
5. If a new larp was starting up, how would it benefit from becoming an Alliance chapter instead of being an independent larp?
First of all, you'd get a rules set that has been playtested for over 20 years so you won't be making your own rules and then discovering the problems when they blow up in your face.
Second, you'd be a part of a group where you can get support and help from other chapters to learn what works and what doesn't so you're not all on your own with no help; including people who have been doing this for years and have probably already tried everything you're thinking of and can then tell you what will work and what won't.
Third, we provide all the software you need to run the chapter (databases, monster guides, treasure policies, etc.). Further, by all pitching in together, we can get discounts on the things we need (game coins, potion vials, props).
Fourth, your players can travel to other chapters and this only helps you to sell the game to potential new members.
Fifth, we have the best Rule Book. It has all the rules, charts, and pictures you need to play the game -- but that's not all. At least 50% of the book is composed of the advice sections, which give examples of how the game is played, what you should do if you're a spy or a spellcaster or a thief or an NPC, and otherwise helps a new player get immersed in the game immediately.
And finally, our Rule Book is available in all formats (kindle, nook, ebook, paperback) in book stores and all over the internet, all over the world. People who have never heard of a LARP find the book, check it out, and then look to see where the closest chapter is to them.
6. "Franchise" larps such as Alliance are relatively unknown in Europe (and commercial larps in general are rare). Plenty of local laws are also different. What if an European group wanted to start an Alliance chapter? Have you ever had such requests before?
I haven't had any requests from Europe yet, so am not sure what the problems would be. We technically are not a franchise in the sense the laws usually mean. Instead, I license the rights to the game to you and provide support, but the insurance and laws are your responsibility.
7. How do you typically integrate a new player into an existing chapter?
Most chapters have new player training which could include a "training" module where they learn their skills better. Mostly, we encourage people to get the Rule Book which answers just about every question they could have. We also have a very active internet bulletin board where you can post any question and have people from all over answer.
8. How many players do Alliance larp chapters typically have? What would be a typical event attendance?
There are a lot of LARPs in America and so attendance is not what it used to be when NERO was one of the only games around. We usually average about 50 players a game, with maybe 25 NPCs. Ten years ago we'd get over 100 at an event. I'm told most American LARPs have the same kind of numbers (except the battle LARPs, which are really more battle games than role-playing games).
9. What was the biggest event ever organized by Alliance larp? How many players did it have, and how long did it last?
We have a national event every two years, where all the chapters get together and we run a plotline that has its roots in all of the chapters and then its climax at the event. Our last one a few months ago had exactly 100 players!
10. How much does a typical Alliance event cost and how much does it last? Typically, how are sleeping, food and drinks organized?
It depends on how much the camp costs that we are renting. Different parts of the country have different fees, and some campsites are with tents and cots and some are more elaborate.
For our "headquarters" chapter that I run, in upstate Pennsylvania, we own our own site -- but of course, we still have expenses. Our fee is $50 for a weekend. We ask players to donate for our food committee and usually we get enough to provide fairly good meals.
11. What are the safety regulations on Alliance larp? Are only boffer weapons used, or do you use latex, Calimacil etc. nowadays? (or is it mixed)
We use latex weapons and boffer weapons, but all have to be approved beforehand for safety. Some latex weapons are much too hard.
12. How do you promote Alliance larp?
Not as much as we could. We make appearances at science fiction and gaming conventions, and contact college gaming groups, and of course try to get people to check out our web page. My publisher promotes the Rule Book, so that helps, too.
13. How is larp accepted in USA by people who don't larp?
Most look down on it, but we don't care. These people usually do things I look down on, too. To each their own.
14. After so many years of actively playing and running stuff, what do you find most enjoyable in larp?
Watching people enjoy something I've written.
15. Have you ever visited other larps?
A few. I'm older, very busy running my own LARP, and have a law practice to run as well as books to write.
16. Have you ever drawn inspiration from other larps (such as some of the most famous European larps, including big larp fests like UK's The Gathering, or Germany's Drachenfest or ConQuest of Mythodea, or nordic efforts into making larp a form of art)?
Can't say I have, because I know little about them. Although I'd love to have an event that large, using real castles.
17. Would you ever visit a Croatian larp?
I'd love to travel the world and play games if I had the money! (My next door neighbor used to play our game, and she takes long business trips to Croatia, so maybe I'll bug her to try one out sometime and report back to me!)