As I tend to do a lot these days, I'm going to start my thoughts with the olden days. In those golden years, now mostly lost in the haze of time and fog of drunkenness, we used to go on adventures. These adventures used to be held in the local public woodland, amid the dog walkers and joggers, cyclists and horse riders. Mostly the public, upon encountering a gaggle of spotty teens in their mothers curtains, would keep a slightly bemused distance, and wait for the action to finish before continuing on their constitutional. When those public were on horses or bikes, we'd stop what we were doing to let them past and to ensure that we avoided a spooked equine running amok amongst the orcs. Sometimes, we'd get queries as to what on earth we were up to, at which point we'd come over all middle class and respectable, and politely explain. People watched, took photos and generally found the whole thing somewhat funny. We'd let the police know when we were intending to camp in the woods, so that no one mistook us for barely post-pubescent Satanists, and were always pretty careful to leave the place looking as tidy as when we arrived. In my 4 years of adventuring, I never came across any problems with the public.
Games moved on, though, and we moved with them. Into scout camps mostly. They were a sensible next step being that they had everything we needed, were relatively cheap and scouting leaders were mostly pretty chilled about any activity that got young women and men out into the fresh air. They gave us the opportunity to have longer weekend events without any risk of accusations of Satanism at all. From camp sites to YHAs, private parks, bigger scout camps, sand dunes, rugby clubs and swamps; the hobby found new and interesting places to be. All of this was fine (except for the rugby club and the swamp, they were shit), as mostly the hobby had moved away from the public eye and was "behind closed doors".
Then some bright spark decided that not only did he want his events to be professional, but he wanted his sites to look as appropriate as possible. He wanted buildings... taverns and feast halls and arenas and senates and stuff. He wanted a permanent site to house them on, and that site could be used year round by different clubs and events. This is laudable and I sincerely admire him for his vision. However, it has done something else too. It's meant planning applications, and council permits and all of those things come with an air of permanence. And that's put us in the public eye again.
Except this time, we're not the two dozen spotty youths of yesteryear; we are adults, with big cars and big tents and there are a shit ton of us. 1200 people for the next Empire is probably a fair estimate, assume an average of 2 people per car, and that's 600 cars. Imagine all 600 turning up at the same time, and leaving at the same time. Every weekend of the year. Would you want to live next door to that? I wouldn't.
I know that this isn't a fair assumption. We don't all descend upon a place at once. There aren't 1200 person events every week of the year. I can think of a dozen or so, once you count PD, LT and Renewal all in. But, if you know nothing of the hobby, and given that we've been tucked away for years most likely don't, you don't know what constitutes a fair assumption. You can't anticipate what might happen, so you naturally assume the worst.
A word on the kind of communities that we're talking about here. Any permanent LARP2 site is likely to be in a rural area. Sure, there was the Tower in Burnley and the Alternative in London as examples of urban sites, but neither of those were suitable for even moderate numbers (or for parking near, at all, ever). So, country communities. I live in one of these (sort of), one that happens to be right near the site that PD are planning to use for this year's events, so have an idea of the kind of people we have around here. Largely, we're a conservative lot (with a small c), who like our countryside and like it unspoiled. People like to be able to get on with their lives, with a minimum of change. Those in the nicer rural communities will have a large amount of money invested in their property and would like them to remain an appreciating asset. We don't want hooligans, yobbos or city folk coming around and messing up our peace and quiet. That's why we chose to live in the countryside.
Not a massive amount happens around here, so its easy for small things to enliven a community. If a threat is perceived, it's easy for it to become the talk of the school gate, the church coffee morning and the bar. We're a community and pride ourselves on that; if our neighbourhood is threatened, expect all hell to break loose, or at least a round of earnest tutting. Some of us might be viewed as busybodies or NIMBYs, but we are all looking out for the interests of the locals.
The wider context is important too. Rightly or wrongly, rural communities feel that they have been shafted in recent times, and still are being. The erosion of the green belt; continued under-investment in local infrastructure (broadband, transport and the like); big government schemes like HS2 and Eco-towns; and even things like the hunting ban - all these feed into a feeling that those city folk are at best indifferent to the needs and desires of the country dwellers. It's easy, then, if something can be perceived as a threat, to whip up an angry mob of concerned citizens. Local councillors are always going to respond to this, many of them have low population wards and thus low majorities. It's important for them to be seen to be doing something.
So what needs to happen? What do we, as LARPers, need to do to ensure that we aren't the enemy. The answer is, largely, nothing.
Nothing out of the ordinary, anyway. Just be good citizens. Don't tear up to the site in the middle of the night, with your car stereo on at maximum volume. Don't hurl abuse at the locals. Don't steal from the local supermarket, or vomit on the shoes of the publican. Don't set fire to the hedgerows or conduct a well coordinated ambush on the local point to point. Just act like a reasonable, sensible adult when in contact with non-roleplayers. You were going to do that anyway, right?
One thing that I do think we could all be better at is clearing sites after ourselves. As an organiser of events, I've done a site walk at the end of those events and realised that I've still got a few more hours clearing up to do. It's not normally laziness, it's normally untied bags that have leaked, or bags that have split, or rubbish in the DMZ between camps. Double bag your stuff, tie it and, if possible, put it in the skip/bins. And if there's some stuff that has been left on the edge of your camp, or in those other guys-that-left-hours-ago camp, pick it up and bag it. Frankly, though, its a minor thing. I realise that every time I camp at a music festival!
I know that it's easy to get angry with the locals who take the attitude that its fine to do what you want as long as its somewhere else. I know its frustrating to watch your hobby struggle to find the site that will allow it to become more than it is. I know that it can just leave you wanting to scream. But don't. It's not going to help. Really. It's not.
Writing to the local press is also not going to help. Sorry. I know you are keen to defend your hobby. I know that you want to show how we're reasonable professional people. But however reasonable you are, however measured or literate, all that it will do is make it more difficult for the opponents of the hobby to back down. It's a public challenge, and no one likes to back down from a public challenge. You can be making the best point in the world, but if it's contrary to the fears of the locals, you'll be dismissed as an outsider trying to brow beat any local opposition. Disputes are best solved quietly and discreetly.
If you are the guy or girl trying to make it happen, then the best thing you can do is engage with the local councillors and try and find one or two who are amenable to talking. The ones that get quoted in the paper are generally the more outspoken ones (those that the journalist can rely on for a juicy quote). The majority of councillors (in my experience and bear in mind that I work for two councils) are decent people trying to do the best for their communities. If you can allay their fears, then local opposition will generally vanish quick sharp. Of course, things like this make for good politics. Sometimes you are going to step into a split council shitstorm that essentially has nothing to do with your stuff, you just make a convenient battleground. In that case there's not much you can do other than sit tight and see what happens.
It's definitely worth talking to local residents, finding out what their worries are; and also talking to local businesses about the potential benefits. Local businesses tend to employ, serve and speak to locals regularly and so can help you get your chosen message out. Remember you are not trying to recruit these people, initially at least, you are just trying to understand their concerns and find a way to address them. You'll not have all the answers straight away, but that's ok, listen to them - it's what they want more than anything.
Anyway, most of us are never going to be in a position to be looking to set up a site, and if you are you probably know all this already.
There's definitely some mileage in a "What is LARP?" section on events websites, with a "What's the local impact?" bit too for the bigger ones. Lay out some good stuff that we do, make some pledges about stuff we will do, and generally make it easy for us to be liked. Cos we're likeable, right?
At the end of the day, we're not just playing in the woods anymore, we're having to play real life too. But we can do that, I reckon most of us are good at it!
1. OK, so I've finally given in to the inevitable and started adding in an A. I'm not sure what it stands for, as the way that I play LARP games is relatively "action" light, but it's here anyway. When I googled for LRP images I got radio controlled cars and the odd gun. LARP on the other hand got me a ton of images of dudes and dudettes in funny looking costumes, which felt right.
2. Nope, still feels wrong.