Lazer-Tag LARP : A Brief History about the Sport of the Future

Please note that the below article is based on a combination of talking to people, my own memories (I joined the hobby back in 1992) and reading back issues of the ‘Firefight’ fanzine. If you think I’ve got anything factually wrong then please get in touch. I had written the majority of this post prior to the impact of Covid-19 but have modified some parts in light of that development..

It was a Monday…

In September 1987 I was watching the first episode of a ground breaking new kid’s TV series, “Knightmare” and in the commercial break I saw an advert for the sport of the future, “Lazer-Tag”. The toy had launched the previous year in the US and had the support of a typical range of tie-in products. Lunchboxes, duvet covers, an animated tv series and even some game books from TSR (then publishers of TTRPG Dungeons & Dragons).

Roughly 18 months after the launch, the high price of the toys coupled with other mitigating factors (including a fatal shooting in Los Angeles) saw them quickly remaindered in toy stores. For more on the actual history of the toy line, there is quite a good video on YouTube that you can watch here and images and history of the company, Worlds of Wonder can be found here, but its when the toy’s started to be sold off cheap is where the Laser-Tag LARP story really begins.

Picking up a bargain

A Starlyte gun and sensor

People who were either already fantasy LARPers or gamers saw these toys in the remainder bin at long forgotten places like Zodiac Toys and independent stores like Golden Gains. Seeing the possibilities offered, they quickly became inspired. All over the country, these shops were visited to quickly hoover up as many of these sets as possible, sometimes driving across the country to acquire them as well as convincing friends and family on holiday to bring back sets or accessories that were either never released over here or were hard to get hold of (such as the StarRifle and StarBase).

The basic starter set comprised of a “Starlyte” pistol and a single “StarSensor” (as in the picture above). The sensor was meant to be worn either clipped to your belt or velcroed to your chest.  Other accessories included a “StarCap” and “StarHelmet” which were effectively head mounted versions of the sensors in either a soft or more rigid housing but these let you be hit in 360° (as opposed to the 180° the Starsensor attached to your chest would) and these head mounted versions would quickly become the standard.

Clubs like Starlore, The Light Brigade, NOAG 2500 and the South London Warlords all took up the new technology and would start to run games using it. Games that were either simple skirmishing (paintless paintball) to more complicated role-play scenarios. However, there were only so many starter sets in so many shops and it quickly became a matter of urgency getting as many as possible in order to be able to outfit games for the people who wanted to play them.  Toys that used the same signalling system also appeared during this time, such as the GI JOE tie-in Pistol, Photon, the Quickshot and the Terminator.  Crucially, all of these toys were compatible with the original Lazer-Tag sensor.

The sensor was (and still is to my mind) the “killer feature” of the system. No more battleboarding was needed after every encounter to see if you had either died in the combat or could continue. No projectiles to be fired and lost and no need to shout your damage at your target (and make sure they knew you were referring to them); the sensor would keep track of your hits and let you know when they had all expired by sounding an electronic siren. Even now, when LARP’s use NERF, Airsoft or a vocal system, all of these are based on players being honest about taking their hits.

I believe the first national exposure was at the annual Summerfest (as organised by Fools & Heroes) in 1989 when Battlecom (a group run by I believe the then head of F&H) organised some simple games as part of that weekend. Laser-Tag also appeared in pages of long forgotten magazines such as GamesMaster, GMI and GamesMan. Laser-Tag would appear in some form at Summerfest for the next three events until forming it’s own fest style event, Dropzone, in 1992.

The cover of the first issue of ‘Firefight’

In the spring of 1990 the first issue of the fanzine Firefight was published, it would continue in print under several editors until 1997. The name would later be resurrected for an internet based forum in 2007 that continued until it was shuttered in early 2018, the domain name, now points to a series of information pages on the current state of the hobby. 

1991 also brought the first TagCon, a day of talks and panels about Laser-Tag and LARP that still happens annually. Thinking on, was this the first LARP convention that was about the design and fundamentals of LARP?

TagCon 2018

The First Arms Race

At a Laser-Tag LARP in 1990(?), one player had butchered the front of his Quickshot pistol and had mounted an old lens from a magnifying glass on the front in a housing formed from plasticard. This substantially increased the range over any other weapon at that stage and all who saw it were in awe of this new power. This one event would herald a period of frenetic innovation, invention and woodwork.

At first the original toy guns were modified; lens covers removed, resistors bypassed, etc. Then the original circuits were transplanted from their original bodies and placed into either larger toy guns or scratch built creations that would feature among other things larger lenses, bigger speakers and higher capacity batteries. These early weapons (among them the almost legendary “Dornford”) changed the dynamics of game play enormously and some groups of players would soon find themselves outmatched by other groups armed with this new generation of weapons.

Not everyone was happy about this.  

A week before Summerfest 1991, it was announced that weapons with lenses over one and a half inch in diameter would not be allowed to take the field at the Laser-Tag part of the traditional August Bank Holiday LARP event. This would affect around twenty-five players who had specifically booked to attend the event and provoked debate in both the pages of fanzine Firefight and at various club meet ups (remember, this was a long time before the internet, flame wars at this time took months as opposed to minutes).  Game balance in the technology that drives the hobby would prove to be a major talking point throughout that period and continues in some form today.

An original Starsensor with added receivers to allow hits to be taken from 360 degrees

The first limiting factor for the hobby was that there was only a finite number of original guns and sensors and early efforts in replicating the technology were directed towards the gun circuits. Products like the Hi-Ranger was reverse engineered from the original gun board but offered enhancements such as selectable automatic fire and a choice of simple gun sounds (back when Maplin used to sell 3 gun sound chips).

Innovation like this would give rise to a small cottage industry that would sell prebuilt lens units, gun circuits and even complete laser-tag weapons.

To scratch build a sensor was a much harder proposition and wouldn’t be solved until a few years later when Dave “The Saint” Bodger released the “SmartSensor” (this was after releasing the “SmartGun” circuit a couple of years prior). In the meantime the original sensors were heavily modified to add additional diodes to allow hits to be taken from 360 degrees, StarCaps would have the front diode raised up (these caps were made for the heads of children and would often lift up when worn by adults).

Original sensors were used in one guise or another until around 10 years ago when they were finally retired from normal gameplay after well over 20 years of active use. I still have some of this original equipment that I use primarily for testing.

Its all about the Game and how you play it

Initially Laser-Tag games were held at a local club level only, the first true inter-club games were held around 1989/1990 with Starlore Adventures running a series of weekend events using a loose Traveller inspired background of space opera. Other games following this would then heavily draw on influential Sci-Fi films from the period with Aliens, Star Wars and Predator inspiring the costume, props, roleplay and writing of the games played.

The usage of genres (such as movies, tv and books) would carry on throughout the lifetime of the hobby. Recent games have utilised more recent genres such as Firefly, Blake’s 7Battlestar Galactica and even computer games such as Fallout. Not every game was genre based and original material has formed the basis of several games and continuing campaigns.

A group of freedom fighters from a “Blakes’7” LARP in 2014

Remember, Laser-Tag was also originally part of those early Summerfest’s and limited skirmish style games were run at those events. One of the things to come out of the 1991 event was a desire for a similar fest style event but aimed solely at Laser-Tag LARP and to also have a dedicated sci-fi theme. The first of these events, now called Dropzone, would then be run over the late May bank holiday in 1992 and has run every year since (until Covid-19 caused the cancellation of the 2020 event).

That first Dropzone seemed to herald a new age of cooperation and soon similar games cropped up all over the country. Remember this was before the age of the internet so mailshots, word of mouth and advertising in the pages of FireFight were the norm back then. Less so now with social media being the primary means of getting the word out about upcoming games/events.

For the most part, in the early days certainly, games were organised by clubs around the country but as the 90’s gave way to the early and then mid-00’s numbers (and clubs) started to dwindle. It was in face of this and to provide a more unified front that remaining active members came together to form the United Kingdom Laser-Tag Alliance (UKLTA), events could now be run under this banner, members would pay their subs and the organisation would provide insurance cover for events.

Making a technological silk purse

An original Star Sensor used for testing next to its modern counterpart that not only indicates a hit but also amount and type of damage.

Even though new gun and sensor circuits had been designed, built and used, it still used the same basic technology and principles as those original guns from the remainder bins had done. You could pick up an original gun made in 1987 and it would still hit a modern scratch built sensor and vice versa. The Lazer-Tag brand has been reinvented over the years with new equipment (sadly not compatible with the original iteration) and had added new features such as variable damage, regeneration, etc. This added flexibility was something people were keen to try and add.

One option that a few people talked about was moving the hobby to use Miles-Tag which was another home brew system (but has since been taken up with used by more professional setups such as Laser-War) but as all the equipment in the hobby was (and still is) privately owned, it would have been a huge undertaking and one that everyone would have had to do. This idea was talked about but never really got off the drawing board. The goal then changed into enhancing what we already had.

Keeping compatibility with old-tech was an absolute priority but at the same time any new system had to offer enhanced features that were never part of the original specification of the original toy otherwise why bother? Research and testing started in 2006 with a small focus group of individuals writing up the specification that was the beginning of what would then become the Data-over-Tag (or DoT) protocol.

A small focus group was formed and they would use experimental hardware to test features and more importantly, compatibility with what was already out there, would old guns hit the new sensors and vice versa, but at the same time, could healing, poison and stun damage actually work?

Tools of the DoT based medical system, a SIAB and Medic Wand (with removable capsules with different potential configurations)

It took a couple of years of experimentation and testing but the DoT system delivered on all of the goals that had been set out, including: –

  • Variable Damage
  • Regenerating Sensors
  • Different types of damage (poison, stun, enhanced)
  • Armour
  • Configurable number of hits on a sensor

And most importantly: –

  • Compatibility with existing kit

DoT enabled equipment would soon filter into the hobby, a lot of sensors already used a micro-controller and so these were quite simple to upgrade so they would recognise the DoT protocol. It was mostly the same case for guns, if we could get to the board and extract the chip then we can upgrade it, at this stage it wouldn’t be uncommon to take a laptop and a programming setup to a game to offer an upgrade service in the field.

A BDC showing number of hits to be sent to the sensor

New technology that came out of this included the BDC and SIAB. The BDC is a handheld unit that allows a wide variety of options to be pre-configured and then that configuration can be sent to any number of sensors (ideally used for quickly configuring monster sensors). The SIAB formed part of a DoT medical system, another hand held device that is used when a player has lost all of their hits, this device indicates the location and severity of the injury and then is able to restore the sensor after a set period of time.

Before DoT, to restore a sensor after all hits had been lost involved resetting it which would wipe any existing configuration (such as a high number of hits), with DoT healing the sensor can be restored whilst retaining this configuration.

Sensors using the DoT protocol became the default standard for all events organised to take advantage of the new features introduced. But change can be hard to accept and a specific group of players were not keen on the system or its implementation and decided to vote with their feet. There is a lot more to it than that but that is beyond the scope of this article.

Looking forward or is it back

LARP, no matter the variety, has changed so much since those early days. Just as the design of latex weapons and the game writing has evolved, so did the electronics driving this part of the hobby. But it’s greatest strength, the tech, is also its greatest weakness. It’s not something you can buy off the shelf. Airsoft LARP seemed to surge around 10-15 years ago (but doesn’t seem as prevalent from my perspective) and there are still a few systems that use NERF for the simple reason that you can walk into a shop and buy it off the shelf. Vocal combat calls are still used but having played LARPs with these it can soon get confusing who is shooting at who.

Tag has always been very much a cottage industry so when someone would come onto our forums wanting to buy 100 sets of of equipment, they would then walk away disappointed that their wishes could not be fulfilled. Thats not to say equipment is impossible to get hold of, its not, just not in the numbers required to kit out a whole new system.

But, even with an overall reduced number of enthusiasts, it has carried on and still runs games, had CoronaVirus not wrecked the plans of so many LARP’s over the last couple of years then planning for Dropzone 2020 was in an advanced state and my own game, The Goodman Protocol, had been due to run in late March and was an early casualty of the lockdown. Some LARP systems have since shuttered for good blaming Covid and other people have also stopped playing LARPs, stepping away. My own theory on that is if you haven’t done something for 2 years and don’t miss it, are you going to go back to it? That may not be true in every case, I haven’t played D&D since March 2020, but I am hoping to resume at some point.

Like, I imagine, all LARPers, when it stops being fun then it will be time to stop,