Cosplay vs. LARP: They’re Not the Same Thing!

LARP vs Cosplay: what's the difference?

As a cosplayer, you hear LARP mentioned occasionally as if it’s a very similar hobby. For the longest time, I didn’t even know what it was, but just had a vague idea that it was some kind of role-playing. Over time, I’ve come to realize that LARP is, in fact, a completely different type of activity.

Cosplay is about costume design and dressing up as your favorite character, while LARP is a role-playing game. While the two activities both involve wearing costumes and going to large events, they have very little else in common.

You can, of course, do both cosplay and LARP, but they generally don’t happen at the same time or even at the same places. The props used are different, the type of costume you wear has different functions, and what you do at the event varies dramatically.

What is LARP?

LARP (Live Action Role Playing) is a role-playing game where people take on the persona of a character. The game will be staged in a fictional world but uses the real world as a setting where characters can travel and interact with others while they pursue a quest or goal. There may also be a crew of people playing NPCs (non-player characters) to act as enemies or helpers for the players.

The rules of the game can vary, since they are determined by a gamemaster who also arranges challenges and guides players through the game. If you’re familiar with tabletop role-playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons, you’ll have a basic idea of how the games are played. However, that’s an oversimplification.

Unlike D&D, the gamemaster has less control over the gameplay since the characters can travel and interact with each other over a large area. LARP events can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days at a time. As a general rule, the players are expected to remain in-character throughout the entire event.

LARP players
LARP events are games that have rules and goals. Mock combat is often a part of the game, but that is not always the case.

What are the differences between LARP and cosplay?

Just from the description of LARP, it’s clear that it’s quite different from cosplay. While the appearance of the two activities may seem similar, the goal of each and the way people can get involved have very little in common.

The focus is different 

The main difference between cosplay and LARP is that the whole focus of the two activities is completely different. Cosplay is much more of a visual art, while LARP is a performance art. In other words, cosplay is all about the costume while LARP is all about the role-playing.

Cosplay is about wearing a costume that celebrates a favorite character. It is highly linked to popular culture, especially in the anime and comic realms. There is also an aspect of cosplay that celebrates the creation of intricate costumes that look excellent in photography. The costume doesn’t have to be functional. In fact, it will often restrict movements (such as lifting your arms), and use impractical pieces (like extremely high heels). 

While it’s common to try to act in character while in cosplay, it’s not necessarily a part of the hobby. When you are at events it is expected that you behave courteously toward all other attendees regardless of the type of character you have dressed up as. 

LARP is worn for role-playing and creating a character. You don’t always have to wear a costume in LARP. While many people choose to, it’s not always a requirement of the game rules. In general, costumes that are worn tend to be more functional and much less elaborate than in cosplay. It’s also very rare to see someone dressed up as a specific fictional character from pop culture.

fire emblem cosplayers
Props made for cosplay are created for their elaborate appearance and not any kind of actual combat.

The props are different

Both cosplay and LARP use props. To some extent, they are similar because you’ll see prop swords, bows, staffs, armor, and so on. However, the actual function and construction of the props are completely different.

In cosplay, props are used for their visual impact. They are usually created from plastic and foam materials with elaborate anime-style designs. They are not constructed to be used as weapons in any way and tend to be fragile and break easily. In fact, many conventions have rules that ban any props that could possibly be used as a weapon.

The props used in LARP, on the other hand, are meant to be functional. You will use padded swords or rubber arrows to simulate combat during gameplay. You don’t want the props you use to break but you also don’t want to hurt other players, so you may find flexible plastic weapons used as well.

Armor that’s made for LARP is also meant to be functional. It shouldn’t limit your movement and should also help to protect you against enemy players and NPCs. 

Cosplay is not a game while LARP is

LARP events are literally set up to be massive role-playing games with players, rules, and everything. You have quests or goals that you try to accomplish or enemies that you try to fight against.

Cosplay is typically done by some people attending anime or comic conventions. It’s a small part of a geek-culture convention that has everything from anime screenings to concerts and actor signings. There will often be cosplay competitions to judge the construction of a costume, but there are no game elements in play.

Preparations for events are different

The way you prepare for a LARP event versus a cosplay event is another dramatic difference. For cosplay, the vast majority of the work is done before the convention. This includes the costume construction and putting the ensemble on (including makeup and wig application). While you may spend some time working with a photographer to get photos of your cosplay, you can more or less relax once you’re at the convention.

On the other hand, most of the work involved with LARP will happen during an event. You might be able to put together a simple costume or practice being in character in the weeks before the game, the real work happens when you are actively playing the game.

What are the similarities between cosplay and LARP

This doesn’t mean that cosplay and LARP have absolutely nothing in common. I mean, why would people get the two mixed up if they were completely different events? When you look at the two activities from an outsider’s perspective, they actually can look somewhat similar. It’s only once you understand the purpose of the costumes and events that you really understand how different they are.

Some of the similarities between cosplay and LARP include:

  • You can dress up in elaborate costumes. While cosplay is better known for the elaborate costumes, there is no reason you can’t create detailed clothing for your LARP character to wear. Even simple medieval garments can look elaborate to an outsider looking in.
  • You roleplay a character. Role-playing isn’t as big an element of cosplay, but it’s common to see people having fun role-playing their characters in both activities.
  • You can go to conventions. In both cases, you attend large events to partake in the activity alongside other like-minded people.
  • You can create a costume for an original character. Cosplay is best known for creating costumes of popular culture characters, however, there is no reason you can’t design your own original character instead.

Emily Joice

My name is Emily, and I have been cosplaying since my very first convention in 2008. Over the years, I've experimented with all different kinds of cosplay costumes, especially loving the process of creating props and styling wigs. I also delved into cosplay photography, and love exploring how to optimize costumes so they look excellent in photos. Most of the photos you find on this site were taken by me over my years at anime conventions.

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