Types of LARPs
There are many kinds of LARP. Broadly, I see several wide strokes:
- Practical LARP - if you can't do it, neither can your Character.
EG: SCA, Kingdom of Acre
Note: many of this type deny being ａ LARP at all.
- Boffer LARP - Use of some weapon simulator, with limits based upon some character generation/advancement rules
EG: Amtguard, IFGS
- Tabletop Game Style LARP - A set of rules, usually based upon some "Tabletop" RPG, adapted for play without a handy table
EG: Mind's Eye Theater, L5R Live Action, Blood & Tears
Note: Most such games have a "no touch" rule, and combat is mechanically simulated without acting it out.
- Story-Only LARP - often, rules-lite or even almost no rules. Often, the only rule is "no touching." Combat may be prohibited, or may be autosuccess, or may be by narrator decision.
In order to discuss combat styles, it's important to understand that physical combat is only present in Practical and Boffer LARPs. With no shortage of irony, SJG's Killer is usually played in-story-only, in that melee is forbidden, and use of a "melee weapon" is auto-successful... Weapons in killer are usually represented by cards with pictures.
Broadly speaking, the advantage of Tabletop Game Style LARP is safety, flexibility, and accessibility. Anyone, even the kid in the powered wheelchair, can play a combat monster, and the big oaf can play the nimble thief. But it also has the problem of disconnect between character and player appearances, as well. The "No Touch" rules ensure much more safety, as no one is at physical risk from combat. Combat, however, becomes a matter of two players and a narrator, and usually some form of randomization (RSP or card flips are the norm). Further, they have a very different learning curve. Also, several Tabletop games now include LARP mode in their rules.
The advantage of the story-only is that it's much more flexible, but it goes even further into believability issues for various things. Further, without some randomization element, combat (when allowed) is almost purely "what can I convince the narrator of."
Practical and Boffer LARPs generally can be categorized by what they use for their weapon simulators.
"Heavy" (SCA, Acre): Rattan weapons, practical (tho' often not period) armor, full force with 1-handed weapons. The techniques used are practical, tho' not always optimized, with live steel weapons, and the combat is thus a practical martial art. Personal training is emphasized. Weapons tend to be the same general weight and balance as the heavier live steel examples. Expect bruises. Armor worn often does not affect combat rules, only personal safety. Note that Rattan breaks into mushy fibers, rather than splintering, most of the time. Thrusting Tips can be added in some systems.
Plastic Heavy: SCA experiment in the 90's; used solid polypropylene rod in place of rattan. aside from being more flexible, and occasionally breaking sharp, same as heavy.
Wasters and Bokken: Solid wooden weapons. I don't know of any organized LARPS using them, but have played a couple of private LARP sessions using bokken, and have done a lot of training with bokken. Weight is excellent, bruising extremely likely, even with real armor. Broken weapons are potentially lethally pointed, and splinters are a problem. This is how many medieval warriors practiced.
Rebated Steel: I don't know of any LARPs using them. I do know a bunch of LARPers who have them. Many martial arts use them. These are potentially deadly. They can break bones, leave huge bruises, and break sharp. Parries can leave sharp spots that can flay flesh.
Practical Rapier (SCA): weapons weigh nearly identical to live steel. Armor worn is usually soft, easily manufactured by wearers, and standard 3-weapons masks are often the only armor that need be purchased. Fewer bruises and smaller bruises than heavy. Gear expensive when purchased; my own gear ran $350 for mask, body armor, gloves and weapon. As with heavy, most of the skills transfer to live steel directly. As with heavy, emphasis on training, and sense of martial art. Unlike heavy, much more obviously a martial art to the general public, and due to faster weapon speeds, less fun to watch. (It can be hard to follow the action.) Broken weapons can be lethally sharp. Same parry issue as rebates; only the lightness of the weapon makes them significantly different from rebated non-fencing steel.
Shinai: split bamboo weapon simulators. Fairly well established record in the martial arts, used in a few LARP groups. Weapons break clean and/or mush much like Rattan. Weapons tend to be lighter than steel. Loose cloth and/or armor over all skin recommended; due to the construction, when the weapon flexes, it opens a bit, and can pinch exposed skin, even take several inch long, 1/8 inch wide chunks of skin. Can leave some impressive bruises, and if used with full force, still break bones.
Reinforced Boffer: boffer constructed of PVC pipe, with wooden dowel inserted down the pipe, and padding over it. Duct tape and/or Mass is similar to live steel, safety slightly less than standard boffer. Primary use is for reenactors doing practical training. Can bruise almost as well as heavy, but doesn't happen quite as often. Much more resistant to breaking than standard boffer, but when they do, they can be quite dangerous due to sharp projections of wood.
(Standard) Boffer: Aside from lacking the wood core, identical to reinforced boffer. Fairly safe, but some potential for bruising. Weapons are too light, and techniques tend to get unrealistic because of it. Broken weapons mch safer than reinforced boffer, as the PVC tends to either shatter or break clean (depending on nature of stress and temperature); construction usually contains the bits as well.
Foam Boffer: Pure foam weapons, at least for the blade. Probably the safest of the weapon options, but due to massively under-weight construction, very unrealistic. It's hard to leave significant bruises, but it can be done.
Modes of Calling Blows
Sufficient Force to Penetrate: The SCA standard is "Sufficient Force to have penetrated chainmail." Requires subjective calling. I've seen people not-call blows that forced them backwards, while others call blows that don't even sting. Even worse with rulesets based upon "... penetrate armor worn." Probably the single hardest skill for new SCA fighters is calling consistently, especially in the harder-hitting groups. Usually,
Felt Blow: If you felt it, you call it. This is the calling standard for SCA Rapier and most of the groups using wasters or shinai I've seen documents on.
Number of felt blows: IFGS and Amtguard use a number of felt blows to incapacitate a body part. Head or body are kills when incapacitated. Specific number based upon both weapon and armor. Requires actually keeping track of the number of landed blows. Can be confusing to onlookers.
Judge Awarded: A third party observes and counts blows. Not very popular; the two games I've seen use it listed it as restricted to duels, using felt-blows as the melee standard.
Lightest Practical Touch: subset of felt blow. In practice, in Oertha at least, the SCA LPT is "If you think you felt it, call it, and your opponent may waive it off..."
As important as the weapons is how they are used.
Full Force - with certain weapons, it can be dangerous. With others, deadly. Combining steel with full force is exceedingly dangerous for casual use. Even with Rattan weapons and good armor, it's still possible to wind up with significant bruises and potentially also some broken bones. With boffer, I've seen a dislocated thumb from a shield being hit.
Full Speed, reduced force - hard to do with heavier weapon types. Typical for rapier and for various boffer types. When my friends and I did bokken-LARP, this was our striking standard. Accidents, and the resulting fractures, happen.
Reduced speed and force - hard to enforce the reduced speed. Much safer, at least when actually done.
Non-contact - I've seen this done in one LARP-like activity; all blows were called before they hit, and speed was reduced. I don't know the group, but they were playing in Anchorage AK in about 1993... May have been theater majors practicing, too... It's the far end of reduced force.
Limited Target Zones - most systems have some shots that aren't allowed as a safety measure.
Another important consideration is the armor standards. Some systems set minimum armor, others have multiple minimums with marking standards, and various other effects may be relevant.
Many of the boffer LARPs have "Apparent" standards: if it looks like mail, it's treated as mail. If it looks like plate, it's called as plate. Many of the recrudescence groups (including the SCA) have some universal standard for calling blows. One LARP had both; the calling standard was leather, with the apparent armor providing the number of blows required to disable, and magic weapons landing multiple "hits" per called shot.
Many systems will have higher standards for armor than others if they use the heavier weapon standards. If I'm swinging a 4' long, 1.5" wide stick at you, you want more than just a jacket... most organized physical combat LARPs have armor sufficient to allow for their normal striking and weapon standards to not leave significant injuries.
As an aside, in the SCA's Oertha, many heavies are bruised all to hell... the minimum armor doesn't protect that much, as it's 14ga or heavier helmet, with spine, wrists, elbows, crotch, and knees in rigid, and most wear well more than minimum armor... but they hit hard enough that, IMO, the standard strike is full force full speed, and called about "will certainly penetrate chain"... tho' most will call lighter if the fighter delivering lighter is known to call that lighter standard.
Also important is how better armors are reflected in the combat standards. The Heavy LARP action I've seen at some "not-an-SCA-Event-but-everyone-is-an-SCAer" fighting activities used standard SCA rules. Meanwhile, Amtgard uses a blows by armor type standard. In the SCA, you wear heavy armor because you want that extra protection for you. In Amtgard, you fake it, so that your character is better protected.
Practical LARP rarely acknowledges the role-play, but for many SCAers, it's a LARP in all but name. The Recrudescence group I was part of was very much into roleplaying "ordinary Scots" as part of demos, but was a reinforced boffer for most training, and rebate-steel no-contact demos with staged "endgame" for some demos.
Most of the Boffer LARPs have character generation and advancement rules, so what armor and weapons you may use may be limited by more than just your skill.
Most of the Tabletop-style rules can be played around the table just as well as in a LARP setting; I have run a couple of them as tabletop games instead of LARPs, and found them very much fun in that mode.
Most of the Story-only games I've read about have been in Europe; the five or six I've participated in have been "quests" at SCA events... So essentially, a LARP inside a LARP.
Speaking of Quests at SCA events: Combat was handled by SCA heavies in 2 of them, by "light infantry" (SCA boffer - no longer allowed) in one, and disallowed entirely in the other.
I've read about 30 different LARP rulesets - but I've not played LARPs much, and not any but the SCA in almost 20 years, save as tabletop game engines. (That said, L5R Live Action Adventures, Castle Falkenstein/Comme Il Fault, Epiphany, and Minds Eye Theater all work really well as table top RPGs...)
Magic is another important consideration - many don't have magic, while others have extensive systems for magic. IFGS and Amtgard both use spell-balls for direct missile spells... and both require some form of adjudication for other spells. So much variety exists that it's best left to different questions.