Before we dive in any deeper, let’s take a moment to understand what LARPing is all about.
The most common LARP storylines involve murder mysteries and call for the completion of tasks. LARPers receive the basic outline of a story and descriptions of the character they are meant to play. They then interact with their fellow players and non-player characters (NPCs). A LARP experience typically last a few hours, although some even run for several days, with overnight stays in fixed locations.
LARPing first gained popularity in China in 2016, following the success of Mango TV's hit show titled Who's The Murderer (明星大侦探), which is remarkably still running till this day. Since then, LARP games can be found on both the Chinese internet and in nearly every city in China. With the latter, simpler ones might take the form of board games, whereas complex scripts make for fully immersive experiences.
On Dianping, a Chinese platform comparable to Yelp, a quick search for剧本杀 reveals around 50 businesses specialising in LARP services in Shanghai. While the majority only offer Mandarin scripts and storylines, a handful also offer English experiences (listed at the end of this article).
Though LARP experiences differ from one to the next, this one's mine:
The storyline was designed for seven to a dozen players, and our group of seven is joined three strangers, which speaks for the popularity of LARPing in Shanghai. Our chosen studio, Parallel Universe (平行宇宙), just so happens to be one of the most highly-rated and expensive in Shanghai; each session costs approximately 500 RMB (around 73 USD) per person. Even so, many LARP enthusiasts are willing to absorb the cost and continue to flock here.
Photos courtesy of Hayley Zhao, friend of the author
Some companies ask you to come fully costumed, but we simply showed up in pedestrian clothes. Seeing as the setting is the Republic of China (1912 - 1949), my girlfriends and I have the opportunity to choose and wear traditional Chinese qipao dresses provided by the venue. In contrast to cosplay outfits, LARP costumes are not always sophisticatedly designed, and mostly serve the purpose of making the characters and storylines more convincing. Accessories, such as jewelry, headdresses, and folding fans, are also available. The boys, on the other hand, have limited options, and have to make do with poorly-made Zhongshan or Mao suits.
We unapologetically spend the first 30 minutes or so trying on different outfits before selecting the best ones.
After everyone is dressed, a member of staff sometimes called an 'arranger' or 'gamemaster' asks us to pick our characters off a list at random, before leading into the theatre. In order to establish a certain atmosphere, the lights are off, but even in the darkness, we can vaguely tell that the setting is that of a two-storied office building. We take our places and study our scripts.
Photo courtesy of Parallel Universe
Who do you befriend/betray?
Simply consisting of two pages, my packet and script for the LARP is simple, and includes a background study of my character and my personal tasks, while also making clear that I am not the murderer. It makes sense to have a less scripted experience — all the better to fully immerse myself in the scenes instead of stressing over memorisation.
Despite the script's simplicity, it is rich enough for me to flesh out a full story. My character is the leader of one of two competing teams under the Kuomintang (KMT) party, and I've been tasked with identifying my team members, uncovering the murderer, executing a secret plan, and escaping the office building.
Photo courtesy of Parallel Universe
In the game, we are all spies, but from different parties and empires: the Kuomintang (KMT), the Communist Party of China (CPC), and Japan. The dynamics between the players prove especially interesting, as some are permitted to change their party affiliations and switch sides. One of my team members turns out to be a Japanese in disguise, leading to an unexpected twist.
In my opinion, having strangers in the LARP session adds an extra layer of excitement, as we are more likely to act freely instead of holding back in front of friends or acquaintances.
Photo courtesy of Parallel Universe
How do you win (or make 'ka-ching'?)
To complete my mission, I must make 'money.' As in the real world, this might come in handy for bribing others for information or purchasing escape passes or prop guns with blanks.
There are many ways to make money in this world, one of which is participating in a simpler version of the casino game Sic Bo and board games like Gomoku.
Another way is to tie the knot with NPCs, as newlyweds are gifted coins by a witness (who just so happens to also be the casino owner) plus a 50% discount on any purchases. Given the allure of such perks, same-sex marriages and polygamy are rampant.
One of the smartest moves I end up making is marrying an arms dealer, who shares his gun and blanks with me. Do not attempt in real life.
How physical does it get?
I never thought I’d say this, but it is thrilling to play with (prop) guns. Although we aren't allowed to directly aim our weapons directly at one another, the props produce loud *bangs* and the smell of gunpowder lingers in the air after each shot, making for an incredibly convincing experience.
Despite my team being fully armed, I am assassinated. Twice (yes, resurrection is sometimes possible). Shoutout to my teammate for taking a bullet for me, but I am soon killed by another agent, given my role as head of the agency and owner of half of the city map, a precious piece of the puzzle that every party is fighting for.
The game ends up reflecting real historical events, with the CPC emerging victorious. The devious CPC agent, my colleague Hayley, kills the last standing member of the KMT in cold blood.
Don't fret if you're new to LARPing! We wouldn't have made it without the professional actors serving as gamemaster and NPCs, whose role is to guide participants through the plot, remind them of their tasks, and provide tips to those who are stuck.
Side note: Besides boasting convincing acting skills, the NPCs we met were all very good-looking males who could have easily stepped out of a rom-com. I suspect some have side gigs at boyfriend cafés.
In hindsight, I wish I'd had the courage to attack others first — and perhaps more sense when it came to hiding from my enemies.
Overall, I would give my first immersive LARP experience a solid 9 out of 10. This thespian would even love to step into the shoes of an NPC herself, and to try her hand at LARPing full-time...
The author's experience unfolded at Parallel Universe (temporarily closed), which conducted its LARP games in Mandarin. The following organisations or individuals offer English experiences, however.
Murder Mystery Dinner
📍 TBD (can be your home or a public space)
☎️ Email founder Ambra at email@example.com
👺 Sample storylines: 'All Is Fair in Love and Murder,' Clueless, the Classic Murder Mystery Game,' 'Murder at the Trailer Park' and much more
📍Tim's Coffee (Central Plaza Store), 227 Huangpi North Road, Huangpu
📕 Xiaohongshu ID: 106890746
👺 Sample storylines: 'The Missing Paper'
Ciyuan Renshengguan (次元人生馆)
📕 Xiaohongshu ID: 1008680868
👺 Sample storylines: 'Who Stole the Diamond?' 'Double Faces,' 'Little Red Riding Hood.'