The rough Oceanside sun hung high in the air as a group of friends and fellow writers prepared for battle. The agreed upon date had come and it was time for us to fulfill our fated promise. Inside of the car I stared out the window before I turned and asked my girlfriend for the third time, “are you sure we want to do this?”
To which she replied, “What do you mean we?” and fixed me with a level stare.
Outside in a wide expanse of grass, men and women dressed in multi-colored costumes milled about and from their waists hung swords sculpted from foam. These were the players of Siar Geata of Amtgard, an online group of LARP hobbyists. Eyeing the scene I wondered for what seemed like the hundredth time why I had agreed to my Editor in Chief’s wild idea for June’s monthly war theme. I could already see it being another Blood Bowl experience. But be that as it may, I was already too far committed to back out, and that the entire day would go smoother if I tucked away my doubts, I opened the door with a sigh and stepped out of the car. A few spots back Eric Carr had finished parking and was already going through his backseat to retrieve our battle garb; a sheet of bargain bin forest green fabric bought from Jo-Ann’s for $0.30 a foot. In the middle of it there was a diamond cut out big enough for a head.
It did not take long to slip on our time period appropriate tabards or tie the matching length of cord around our waists. Before I was even prepared for what was happening we were walking across the field and signing in for the day’s adventures. There was a friendly young woman who greeted us with a smile and welcomed us to Amtgard while handing out the liability waivers – a step that had me more than a little apprehensive. From everything I had ever seen LARP was anything but dangerous, but apparently I was wrong and medieval battle doesn’t come without its risks.
We were among the last to arrive and after we checked in and signed on the dotted line the games began quickly and didn’t stop. LARPing, unlike anything you might have overheard or seen on TV, is fast paced stuff. The sword fights, while not exactly harmful, are as quick and furious as any full contact sport. The closest thing I can compare it to is something like flag football but with weapons. There isn’t much down time after a game starts and once it does I didn’t think about much other than how to kill a dude swinging around an 8’ PVC foam polearm.
The first game we played was called “Ditch Fight” and it was a simple team based battle. Players formed rough lines on the field, one team opposing another, and at the reeves’ (LARPing’s version of a referee) call we fought. This was a warm up, a way for newb’s to figure out the rules and for veterans to get the blood pumping. The rules are simple, the group of participants is equally split in two and put opposite each other in a straight line. At the Revee’s call we fight, the last person to get slain on the losing team runs to the other side, rinse and repeat. As far as introductory experiences go it was straightforward and awesome. There was no over thinking things or complex rules, it was all about swinging those magnificent little foam swords.
Every player on the field has two life points and to kill them you need to run those out. Doing that is simple. Hitting and arm or leg with a sword counts as one point, and body shots, the full two. While it was a bit strange going after complete strangers with a sword, I relished the chance to beat my fellow writers old school. Seal in particular proved to be a thorn in my side. He is quick with a blade and after he had a few rounds in him, he was out for blood. During the second game he ran with the wind under his feet and with every life he charged our right flank like a madman. By the end of the game I believe death counts were equal but both of us were seriously out of breath. But that’s the core of LARPing fun – dueling it out with your buds, creating those adrenaline laced memories.
The second game was a straight up free-for-all extravaganza. On the field was a giant triangle and in the center of it was a pile of potential weapons. Everyone started with a simple short sword and we were split into three groups, one for each corner. At the reeve’s call we were to enter the field and fight. When someone died they had to leave the triangle and wait for the person who killed them to die before having a chance to respawn. The winner of this melee mash up is the last fighter standing. The hook is that if you are quick enough, or skilled enough with the sword, you can loot the weapon pile and further arm yourself for battle.
I found that the second game was where LARPing really shined. The battles were fast, nonstop, and you got to use a variety of different weapons. The polearm was super fun and oddly heavier than I imagined, while the throwable javelins were a real treat to hurl across the field. It was during this game that it really hit me, the realization that LARPing really is nothing like it’s depicted on TV. I mean it all could have gone so wrong. The people could have been weird and nerdy, the lingo all very knightly. But when it came down to it none of that was as much of an issue as has been glorified in media. At its heart these gatherings are all about the second to second action that swordplay has to offer. Turns out there is so much strategy to fighting and after trying it myself I could liken it to playing chess with arms. After just a few deaths I was trying to figure out the timing to a parry and the right way to get past a spear. Plus, it is just plain fun to beat on your friends and run at them with a blade.
The third and final game for Seal and I was the class battle. A game in which the point is to conquer all three corners of a giant triangle traced down upon the ground. How we were supposed to do this was by placing colored flags at the opposing team’s point and counting to fifteen Mississippis while defending it. At fifteen seconds that corner is conquered and the reviving team receives a respawn penalty. The big difference in this game was that blades and bows were no longer the only things we needed to worry about. Classes were fair game and that meant spells, special abilities, and specialized weapons and attacks. I was a barbarian and my abilities were shield break and spell immunity to certain degree.
As a new player this was by far the least fun of the day. All of the very simple rules we followed before were gone and what remained was a bunch of complex rule interactions that we needed to learn by trial and error. All I remember was getting shot by things I didn’t understand and killed by things that I thought, for a brief period of time, seemed to be cheating. Which is of course no fault of the game. The game from the outside looked like fun and those who had custom weapons and classes were very into what they were doing. The problem was that I didn’t know the first things about classes or their abilities so for me the game fell flat.
One of the other things that really surprised me was how welcoming the community was to newcomers. Not only was the group more than happy to have my buddies and I play but as the day went on they invited other park goers to partake as well. One father came up about halfway through the meet and asked if his kids could maybe play and the answer was immediately yes. For one, the more people that play the better because in war more people means more enemies to hit. But secondly, Siar Geata actually took the time to teach people the rules and give players the tools to have fun and enjoy themselves. I never once felt like I had been invited just so I could get beat up or stabbed. In fact most people I was killed by took the time instruct me after most of my early deaths. A girl named “Scorch” was particularly kind and went out of her way between games to make me and my girlfriend feel welcome and noticed. By the end of the day it was those connections that kept the action pumping; Friends killing friends, a simple but sufficiently addicting activity.
Honestly I would go again, I sincerely thought it was that much fun. Which is the last thing I ever thought would come out of our little Saturday adventure. Going into the day I was filled with one part excitment and three parts guarded optimism. I mean I had seen, or so I thought, what the game could be like. One of the most famous episodes of the TV show Rob and Big was about a giant LARP event and while it looked cool, I could never really see myself going out onto the field and giving it a try. And now I can only say that I am happy I finally did. LARPing is nothing like what you have watched or seen; it’s the kind of thing that you need to try firsthand to get. There is something magical about wading into battle with a foam sword in your hands and it has nothing to do all the fantastically dressed people you are facing. LARPing is, for all its perceived reputation, an empowering and fun experience. Something that I suggest everyone give a try.