The fight is about to begin.
With tentative steps that crunch the multicolored carpeting of leaves below, two gangs slowly creep toward each other. Their lips curl back, revealing menacing scowls as they face off, jutting forth their weapons and issuing the occasional taunt. Tension hangs in the crisp autumn air, so thick you could cut it with a spork.
Someone unleashes a guttural scream, and the two groups rush each other, colliding in a chaos of flailing limbs and weaponry. One man, his face painted entirely in black, bellows a fearsome battle cry and strikes his victim. The crushing blow results in a resounding pfffft.
It is a foam sword, after all.
About once a month, these men and women among them business owners, college students and accountants don armor and other medieval garb and tromp out to the woods, where they delight in bonking in each other with foam and rubber weaponry. They pretend theyre countesses, orcs, sorcerers, warriors, elves and evil dark overlords, erect tepees and encampments, cook over fire pits. And they whack each other with squishy implements of doom. A lot.
This is live-action role playing, better known as LARP. Boiled down to its basics, LARP is simply dress-up and make-believe for adults. The players create characters from vampires to baronesses and inhabit the roles, much like improvisational theater, maneuvering through a complex set of rules that vary from game to game. LARP sprang from tabletop role-playing games (RPGs), the most famous of which is Dungeons & Dragons. And, like D&D, LARP has suffered from misconceptions and unflattering portrayals by the press and the religious right. Everyone from Tipper Gore to the Christian Information Ministries has warned that RPGs can lead to derelict behavior or occultism. Even some role-playing gamers themselves say the level of psychological immersion in LARP is troubling, blurring a critical line between reality and fantasy.
And many say its just plain dorky.
But LARPers, as they call themselves, say their personal form of entertainment is good, clean albeit rather strange fun, a harmless form of escapism little different from improv or video games.
Plus, you get to hit people with a stick.
Charles Asbury is an elf. A hulking, broad-shouldered, 6-foot-2-inch elf, with hair shorn into a crew cut and a deceptively intimidating mug.
Connie mistook me for an ogre, he says of another player, laughing. She said, You look awful tall for an elf. You sure you aint got no ogre blood in ya?
As another player helps adjust his armor, Asburys metal epaulets clink as he offers a matter-of-fact shrug. Yeah, I have to go talk to a dragon later, he deadpans.
Asbury, along with dozens of others, is gearing up to play KANAR, a weekend-long LARP in Milan, that meets several times a year. KANAR (Knights and Nobles and Rogues) is a nonprofit organization, has a board of directors and owns the 40-acre woodland where the games take place. Players have built several permanent structures on the land, like a shantytown version of Ren Faire.
Its Saturday afternoon, and sleepy-eyed participants they were up all night LARPing are trickling onto the grounds. As the screeching engines of nearby Milan Dragway fill the air, brave knights and fair maidens in historical dress roll into the parking lot in their Civics and SUVs, clutching Mountain Dew bottles and smoking Marlboro Lights. One player is trying to attach her pierced elfin ears, and shouts across the parking lot, Are you done with the spirit gum yet? A sorceress is filling her belt with spells: tennis balls. She nails you with the tennis ball, the spell is cast; she misses you, and the spell misses you. Lets go kill some goblins! says a knight, hoisting his shield a garbage can lid covered in carpet padding and duct tape.
RPGs are an offshoot of the strategic war games popular in the 70s. In essence, an RPG is a game in which the player assumes the role of a fictional character, and the outcomes of conflicts and combat are decided with a roll of the dice. RPGs became a mainstream phenomenon in the 80s, when Dungeons & Dragons exploded onto the pop-culture scene, bringing with it accusations of occultism, murder and suicides, from parents, pastors and authorities, who were convinced that a few teen suicide cases were directly linked to D&D. Apparently, it was the role-playing aspect that was frightening. From the Web site religioustolerance.org:
There are many anecdotal stories about youth who have become involved with RPGs, and have become totally obsessed with the game. They become emotionally linked to their pretend RPG character. They lose the capacity to separate fantasy from reality. Some stressor makes them snap. They either commit suicide or go on a murder rampage. These stories make excellent material for an urban legend. Such stories are widely discussed throughout North America. Fortunately, RPGs simply do not work this way. A gamer who commits suicide after having lost his identity in a RPG is probably as rare as a person who goes into a deep depression and kills themselves because they went bankrupt playing a game of Monopoly.
Most of the D&D controversy died along with the Just Say No campaign, as the conservative-Christian machine moved on to the next cause célèbre that was warping young minds Marilyn Manson, etc.
RPGs have crept into the spotlight once again in recent years with the raging popularity of the role-playing card game Magic: The Gathering, and has received a boost into the 21st century via the Internet: Such computerized multi-player RPGs as World of Warcraft have taken off like wildfire in the last year alone. Other role-playing elements are found in Renaissance Festival players (aka Rennies) and the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a worldwide organization that focuses on painstakingly exact historical re-enactments of medieval battles. And it all falls under the greater umbrella of sci-fi, fantasy and graphic novels.
LARPing, however, has always been the upper echelons of dorkdom, an activity considering by some as too geeky for even the geekiest of geeks. But despite its long-running stereotype as the realm of acne-ridden teenage boys and overweight twentysomething virgins, LARPing is edging into the mainstream consciousness, and the players are becoming more diverse.
There are two schools of LARP: combative (or boffer) and noncombative. Boffer LARPs use padded weapons and armor in real combat scenarios the two largest in Michigan are KANAR and NERO. Non-combative LARPs focus more on character development and strategy (conflicts are solved using rock, paper, scissors), and one of the most popular is Vampire: The Masquerade, in which the goal is to outwit and outmaneuver your opponents through political and social manipulation and backstabbing like Survivor for the undead. Vampire was created by the publishing company White Wolf; others are independently created. The local LARP Another Darkness is tailored to be Detroit-centric (one of the fictive settings is the goth hangout, City Club) but is based on the Vampire rulebook.
There is no winning in LARP. The goal is to advance the development of your character through an elaborate point system. The games go on for months, sometimes years, continually evolving as new characters are added and old ones die or simply fade away just like real life. To say LARPing is complex is a massive understatement. The rules and plot twists can be mind-boggling. A player called the game master or storyteller is responsible for holding it all together; like architects of the game, a game master keeps track of the developments and gives players plot lines and conflict scenarios.
Because of the open-ended nature of the game, some players spend years developing their characters, and can become extremely attached to them. Ive seen grown men in tears because their character died, gamer Owen Matson says.
Ive played with pneumonia, says KANAR player Dave Champagne. His girlfriend, Kathy Hulzey, just completed a KANAR weekend in the cold air with bronchitis. Only for KANAR would I come out here, she says.
Asbury calls LARPing the new crack. Your first hits free.
The immersion is intense. Some players create entire Web sites for their characters. In KANAR, wooden headstones are erected in a makeshift cemetery for characters whove passed on to that great LARP in the sky.
High school teacher Robin Trombley, 26, has played KANAR regularly since 1998, wearing milky blue contacts that signify his characters blindness. As long as you dont grow too attached and keep it fun, its perfectly fine, he says. But Ive seen people take it too far, people who quit jobs to play KANAR because their job didnt give them the weekend off. Ive seen relationships destroyed because of what happened in game, friendships out of game ruined. Some people do get too involved.
But for each one of those cases, there are plenty more folks who lead normal, productive lives when theyre not cavorting through the woods slaying waiters pretending to be orcs.
Aliki Liadis has played Vampire: The Masquerade, now plays KANAR, and works as an underwriter for a payment processing company. When I come off the field, if I have a beef with your character, I couldnt care less when we go off field and go to Dennys afterwards, she says. This is a story, a game. This isnt real life. Dont take it personally.
Liadis says she doesnt keep her LARPing hobbies a secret, but I broach the subject very slowly. I think its easier to ask forgiveness than ask permission.
Its easy to have a cheap laugh at LARPers expense. When goth kids playing Vampire lean against a wall at City Club and obfuscate crossing their arms over their chests to signify theyre invisible its hard to stifle a giggle.
But most LARPers acknowledge that their hobby looks strange to outsiders, and have a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. Personally, I couldnt give a shit, Liadis says sweetly. Hey, I have my hobbies. I do my job, and I do it exceptionally well.
Trombley: The whole concept of going out dressed in funny clothing and hitting people with sticks appealed to me. Everyone wants to play swords when theyre little, so why should you stop? I guess Im kind of a masochist. I do play the blind guy, after all. I take a lot of falls.
For most, the appeal is escapism, and pure fun.
Its being something more than I can be in the regular world, Asbury says. And I get to hit people with padded sticks, what more could you want?
Shes very aristocratic. She believes in close friendships.
Allison Hodges, 20, is speaking of Contessa Isabella Montague, a vampire nearly 700 years old. Hodges created the Contessa, and plays her several times a year in the Another Darkness. She was roped into the game by her boyfriend, and instantly got hooked. Shes part of a newly discovered species, once thought not to exist: chick gamers. All the time, I meet guys who say, Youre a gamer and youre a girl? That is so cool, Hodges says.
Jennifer German, 26, of Livonia, plays with the Detroit branch of NERO, combat and all. She says until recently, she was the only female player. I take pride in being a role-playing geek, she says. More people are starting to realize all the different kinds of fun it provides. Its not just fighting or sitting around talking. I know people whove gotten jobs through NERO, whove met and married. Theres a whole society behind the role playing.
German says there are many types of boffer players: from the stick jocks in it for the combat to the angst-and-woe players, who relish the drama, both on the field and off. And noncombative LARPs cover a wide range of genres goth, sci-fi, horror, fantasy, historical, cyberpunk and all sorts of cross genres. The variety has changed the once white pimply face of the average LARPer.
As a 35-year-old African-American family man in a button-down polo and khaki shorts, Detroiter Jim Gaines appearance doesnt scream gamer at first glance. But hes been role playing in some form or another since he was 12, runs Another Darkness, formed his own gaming company, Convention Enterprises, and is the driving force behind Trinity Con, a gaming convention in its third year that covers role playing, sci-fi, anime and everything in between.
Despite the geek with the bowtie stereotype, I have everyone from hardcore street roughnecks to goth chicks to lawyers in my game, he says. Im not going to say there arent some serious geeks out there, but you do have people of all walks of life. One of the most famous gamers out there is Vin Diesel. Id like to see someone walk up to him and tell him hes a dork.
Over the years, Gaines has been intrigued by the many psychological subtexts to the player-character relationship.
Parts of their personality tend to bleed into whatever character they play. You pick up cues to someones personality. Jack Nicholson is a great actor, but in every role he plays, hes Jack Nicholson. Its the same thing with LARP the good and bad things in your personality stand out.
Liadis agrees. When you create a character, you create the person you want to be, she says. People want their character to live forever and be the best and the strongest. Just like real life.
This is pathetic. I cant believe that these are grown men and women dressing up like super heros and villians and throwing wads of paper at eachother while yelling lightning bolt! Does anyone else find this behavior scary?
Most people think were a bunch of goofballs, says SCA participant and LARPer Ray Gallerani of Garden City. But at the same time if you tell someone youre a Civil War re-enactor, they dont care.
My dad used to absolutely hate it, but now I can explain to him the kind of trouble that being involved in those groups kept me out of. Instead of going out with the rest of the high school kids to parties, I was hanging out in the woods.
Liadis had her fair share of curious inquires, some friendlier than others. Back when I was in Vampire, the single most popular question was, Do you really drink blood? No, because we think those people are freaky too. They were banned from our games because they creeped us out.
Furthermore, many LARPers are understandably a little gun-shy about speaking to the press, since theyve historically been depicted as either socially inept dweebs or blood-guzzling Satanists. It got so bad that 10 years ago, lifelong gamer Bill Walton decided to create theescapist.com, a Web site for RPG advocacy, dedicated to fighting misconceptions and misrepresentations, and undoing the damage inflicted by sensationalistic reporting and religious campaigns.
In 1985 Geraldo did a show on D&D called Games that Kill, Walton says. Then the same Geraldo, during Columbine, talked about how lots of people play Doom and Quake and D&D and dont go out and kill people. So if even Geraldo can change his mind ... thats a positive sign.
As its become more widespread, the rumors and urban legends fade away. It used to be geeky and evil, and now its just geeky. Geekdom in general has become more popular. Certainly the popularity of home computers has helped that. More people consider themselves geeks because they know how to fix a computer when it breaks down.
Walton also says role playing can be extremely useful in education. He has two kids, and plays RPGs with them frequently. Its great for kids because it teaches them how to put yourself in someone elses shoes, and how to see things from a different point of view.
Trombley, the high school teacher, also supports LARP in education, and sometimes has his students use role playing to analyze characters in plays or literature.
Whether in a childhood game or in the adult world, everyone has role played in some shape or form at one point.
When you think about it, people use it all the time in business role playing transactions, Walton says. And the military uses role playing when they stage mock terrorist attacks. Its an excellent tool.
A couple of goblins are taking a smoke break, gathered around a fire pit. KANAR players are encouraged to cover up anachronistic objects on the field, to retain the sense of time period. Kathy Hulzey shows off her leather cigarette holder that clips to her belt; it even has a pocket for a lighter.
Those are great, because I can get my ass kicked on the ground and never crush my smokes, Asbury, the giant elf, says brightly. Cell phones are allowed in case of emergencies, but users are encouraged to be discreet. In game, the phones are referred to as fairy boxes.
Hulzey opens her spell book, which is written in common Elven (the elf language). If another player or NPC (non-player character, typically a goblin, ghoul or monster of some ilk) swipes it and cant read Elven, they cant use her spells against her.
The players are waiting for the next combat, which is achingly slow in its setup. This afternoons module is used primarily to advance character development. During night, its more of a free-for-all. Now is time for shop talk and bitching.
There was this situation where I had to take out six lesser vampires ...
Remember that one time when I was walking through the Elven village and I totally got jacked?
Thats nothing remember when the dozen flaming skeletons ...
... and when I saw 10 NPCs coming down the hill with their hands in the air, I thought oh shit.
Dude, I have to go cook dinner for the tribe.
Asbury, who was in the National Guard during Desert Storm and utilizes some of his military fighting tactics while LARPing, is discussing the differences between KANAR and the SCA.
There are no head shots here, he says. And in the SCA, theres less padding, heavier armor, and they go straight for the head.
He recalls his first time in one of SCAs typically grandiose large-scale battle re-enactments. He was on the front line. I remember taking one swing, and then waking up in the hospital looking at my 10-gauge helmet that they had to cut off.
Theres some cliquishness and separation between the role-playing entities some SCA people think the Ren Fest is for pussies, some LARPers think SCA fighters are dumb jocks, some tabletop role players think LARPers take it too far. In that, its not much different from other subcultures. Just like any large organization, there are flurries of inner turmoil: bickering, drama, arguing over how the games should be run. Essentially, they behave just like a large family. In elf ears.
Gaming is big business, and continually growing. Since Vampire: The Masquerade was published in 1991, its been translated into six languages. NERO has chapters in 48 states, and an estimated 27,000 registered players nationwide. New Line Cinema is reportedly planning a film about gamers, the Sci-Fi Channel is said to have a LARP reality show in the works, and two indie films about LARPing have been released: GAMERZ and DARKON.
KANAR is nonprofit, and members pay annual dues of $100, or a $20 fee per game. Other LARPs are privately run, and can be costly to maintain. For one, simply finding a place to hold them can be expensive and time-consuming. Gaines used to host Another Darkness at an old 20s speakeasy in Detroit, which the owner has since shut down. Detroits Vampire games mostly died along with the venues where they were hosted: the goth coffee shop Ascension UK, and the on-and-off again dance club, The Labyrinth.
Smaller games are relatively inexpensive to run, but the bigger the group, the costlier the venture. I do LARP as a hobby, not to make money, Gaines says. I know a lot of large groups that broke up because of haggling over money. A LARP is a lot of work in terms of planning, record keeping, organizing. A lot of people cant keep up with the effort.
For boffers, the cost of costuming and weapons can add up quickly. Some buy fancy latex weaponry online, but many players fashion their own from Nerf bats, garbage can lids and dowel rods.
You can throw together something cheaply if youre willing to work at it, KANAR player Connie Blair says.
Trombley, who plays a blind adventurer, is egging on his compatriots to jump four feet over a patch of leaves and twigs for the games purposes, a flaming pit of oil. He takes a flying leap across the foliage and lands safely, but others arent as lucky. The crew then approaches a trail path where the Gnolls humanoid creatures with dog-like heads are waiting to bash some skull. In the meantime, the Gnolls have been chain-smoking and chattering. When their rivals approach, they snap to attention, hastily ditching their smokes and hoisting their squishy weapons.
When the combat finally erupts, all hell breaks loose. Each weapon is assigned a point value a player shouts it out when he strikes his target, resulting in a cacophony of Five! Five! Three! Four! Five! Two! Spell balls go whizzing through the air, and someone has erected a fire shield. Its up to the game master to keep track of the insanity.
Josh, your head is getting very warm, he admonishes a player who ignores the fire shield. A stocky blond guy playing a Knoll barks and howls and limps each time hes hit. The entire conflict lasts less than two minutes.
Things are more subdued over at the barbarian encampment. Theres a carcass impaled on rickety wooden fence, topped with what looks like a plastic human skull. A trio of barbarians is gathered around a fire pit, draped in animal skins and leather headdresses. For the most part, the players take great care to invoke the true spirit and feeling of a fantastical, mystical realm, but little anachronisms pop up throughout the sprawling saga evident when a barbarian lights up a Marlboro with a Bic.
Surrounding the camp are tepees made of different colored camping tarps; a peek inside one reveals an air mattress and blue down comforter.
Visiting gamer Owen Matson expresses his disdain.
You cant be a barbarian and have an air mattress, he says. Thats cheating.
Sarah Klein is the culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com