Magic and mayhem: LARPer life in Minnesota

Four people hold fake weapons
A group of LARPers retreat after successfully completing a module where they freed captives from the enemy at Miller Castle in Nisswa on Oct. 22. LARPers are people who participate in live-action role play.
Jacob Aloi | MPR News

On a recent fall weekend in Nisswa, the Minnesota chapter of Alliance, a national LARP organization, met for the climatic end of a years-long story arc. It involved a battle on the grounds of Miller Castle, between an army of Orcs and Hoblings and a group of armor-clad adventurers bearing foam weapons. 

“The players have been tasked to kill one of the champions of the enemy nation that’s invading their country,” said Ryan Codner, one of the plot writers for the group. He explains the battle is just one of many that will decide the fate of Arabella, the fantasy Kingdom of the game. 

Two people huddle on the ground
Nate MacLaurin, dressed as his character Vaelin, looks on during a battle on the castle grounds.
Jacob Aloi | MPR News

“They need to defeat [the army] before they can move in on the castle that will hopefully oust the invading army and they win the war,” said Codner.  

The basics of LARPing are simple. Participants create characters with certain skills and abilities, called “player characters.” Some are what is called NPCs or non-player characters. They take on the roles of monsters, villains and townspeople who can set the adventurers on quests.  

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The Minnesota chapter of Alliance meets one weekend a month during summer and fall, with 40-50 players at any given event. Registration for an event is $60 to $75 for player characters, but some events are free for NPCs. 

While some players choose to spend lots of money to attend the game and make or buy costumes and props, long time LARPer Andrea Rye says it can be as affordable as you want it to be.  

“It is such a sliding scale, it can be as little as, like, $15 dollars to NPC. All the garb is provided for you,” Rye said. “It basically covers your food cost.” 

From all walks of life

A castle
Miller Castle in Nisswa may look medieval but was built in 2008 on the grounds of a Boy Scout camp.
Jacob Aloi | MPR News

Some people become LARPers after playing Dungeons and Dragons or attending renaissance fairs.  

Others find their way into the hobby after seeing live action role play in TV shows and movies. This is even though their depictions aren’t always friendly according to Tab Merkle, who has been LARPing for over 20 years.  

"There’s a lot of LARP in media right now. Most of us are getting made fun of or poked fun of in like ‘Role Models’ movie of a couple years ago” Merkle said.  

A person gray hair and a beard looks intensely
Tab Merkle is the owner of the Tennessee chapter of Alliance, a LARPing group, and traveled to play his character “Wick” at the event.
Jacob Aloi | MPR News

While many view LARPing as a strange pastime reserved for nerds, Merkle said people come from all walks of life to play the game.  

“At any one given game, you’ll have a lawyer, you’ll have a college kid, you’ll have, you know, a gutter punk.” Merkle said.  

Rye agreed.  

“Yeah, we definitely get a lot of cross over between those athletes, that really want to go out and do this stuff” she said.  

Learning skills both real and fantastic

Some LARPers drive for hours to attend events. Merkle came from Tennessee where he runs the local chapter of the Alliance. Some say it is empowering to play a character with different abilities than they have in real life. Others say it has helped them develop their social skills.  

Two people huddle on the ground
LARPers Daniel Perez and Kelly Leveille huddle during one of the games modules, waiting for their fellow adventurers to help them escape at Miller Castle.
Jacob Aloi | MPR News

Matt Machtan is one of the owners of the MN chapter of Alliance and began LARPing after coming home from an Army National Guard deployment to Iraq. He says the secret ingredient to having players come back is paying attention to what they want out of the story.  

“What brings them to the table, you know? Is it the fact that they got this new fancy magic item that they get to play around with?” Machtan said,  “Then let’s try to work our way towards the plot of having that happen for that particular character.” 

For those out there who have yet to give LARPing a chance, Alliance Minnesota co-owner Ryan Schmidt has a challenge.  

“Give it one try, it won’t kill you,” Schmidt said. “You might just find it’s the best thing you’ve done.”   

Machtan and Schmidt’s attention to detail is clear in how they interact with the players. While they stepped down as owners of Minnesota Alliance at the end of the Nisswa event, they both plan on continuing to play under the new ownership next season.  

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.