The sun creeps through tree branches and spills on to the sparkling, snow-covered battlefield. I stand at the far end of the tiny battle scene, trying to look as intimidating as possible in a ski jacket and baggy blue jeans. My teammates, Brad and John, with their chainmail and handmade robes fit the part better than I do. My weapon of choice is a short sword – the shaft of a broken golf club covered with a pool noodle and wrapped in cloth.
Rob yells, “Lay on!” Across the tiny clearing, Alex wearing pink and black chainmail and Dan adorned in black fur and chainmail, come running and roaring at us, weapons in the air.
Once the fight began, we charged forward but I really had no clue what I was doing. I thrashed and slashed my sword about, trying to hit someone or to protect myself from getting hit by the weapons flying at me. If I was cold before beginning the game, I wasn’t anymore. I had never looked at Mohawk Park this way before. Welcome to battle LARP.
LARP stands for live action role-playing and involves a group acting out a certain scene or quest all in the name of good fun. In this particular case, the game is Amtgard, a fantasy-based fighting game where players create a character based on one of ten different classes. The class a player chooses determines what they wear and how much defense and magic they have to use in battle. Different classes have different kinds of magic, and each type of magic has a different effect when used in battle. The amount of defense a player has determines how many times a player can get hit in a certain spot before they lose a limb or die.
When it comes to picking characters, players are bound only by their own creativity. For today, I was a lowly peasant – the one with the least skills and fewest outfit requirements. The player can create pretty much any character they would like as long as it’s true to medieval times and doesn’t infringe on copyright laws. Players can be wizards, for example; just not one named Harry Potter. A character can only level up by going out to field days and signing in at the end of the day. A field day is any day where the group gets together to participate in battles and quests. Every month a player can get up to two credits, which count toward leveling up their character. Each class has a certain amount of credits needed to advance, and participation is the only way to obtain these credits.
Besides the lavish and beautiful costumes and physical fighting, the game’s uniqueness comes from the intense set of rules the players must abide by and how they are enforced. Amtgard relies on an honor system, which means players are trusted to play by the rules in battle. A “Reeve,” a kind of referee, settles disputes. These disputes generally occur when players are unsure of where they might have hit another player.
Explaining the complex rules of LARP completely would take a book, not a 1400-word feature. In a nutshell, the game uses a hit location system to determine the amount of damage done to a player. If a beginner gets hit in the arm, they may no longer fight with it. If someone gets hit in the leg, they must fight from their knees. A torso shot is an instant kill, and players die if they lose two limbs. Head and neck shots are illegal. Each class has a different amount of lives. For our battle, I only had four. Once a player loses all their lives they are “shattered” and can no longer play in that round. This is where the honor system comes in; it can be a bit tricky when disputes arise. Players can wear a lot of armor in order to increase the number of hits it takes to kill them. They may not always feel when they get hit. The Reeve will intervene and settle disputes based on what they saw and what the players involved say happened. Their decision can’t be argued against and must be obeyed.
When I first stepped out of the car, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The first people I noticed were Rob Vellenga and Alexandria Howard. Rob was wearing long black and orange robes, with an orange symbol sewn on the front. In contrast, Alex’s chainmail was bright pink and black with a black cross on the front. Alex gave me a quick lesson in ditching, otherwise known as fighting, and taught me where to hold my hands and how to swing my sword. Although she beat me fairly quickly, I was starting to feel like less of an outsider and more like they were excited to have some new blood added to the group. Any nervousness I had going into the day was quickly melting away.
The weapons are things of beauty. When we first arrived on the scene, Rob quickly assured myself and my team of photographers they wouldn’t hurt us. A basic sword is made from the shaft of a broken golf club wrapped in a pool noodle. The noodle is then wrapped in a fabric for aesthetic appeal; a rope wrapped tightly around one end creates a handle. But the swords can be more sophisticated. For example, Brad’s was shaped like a bone to suit the character he had chosen that day – a skeleton.
But as with most things the only way to really learn the rules is to play. The Brantford group, Ravenwing, allowed me to participate in one of their battles. Brad Crossman and a group of his friends started Ravenwing about six years ago. After his sister in Sudbury introduced him to the game, he brought it back with him to Brantford and has been playing ever since. Dan Genernux became hooked when an ex-girlfriend’s friend introduced him to the game about four years ago. For this group, it’s not just about fighting, but it’s also about getting together with other people and having fun.
LARPing hasn’t really caught on much in Canada, and is a little more popular in the United States and a big hit in Europe. Rob and Brad say there are only a few groups in Ontario: Toronto, Sudbury, Ottawa, and Brantford. The original LARP began in Texas sometime in the 1960s. It started as a kind of renaissance faire, but before long smaller groups started breaking off to explore different aspects of the game. The game Ravenwing plays, Amtgard, first came into being sometime in the late 1980s and is the game generally played in Ontario. Currently, the Ontario groups are trying to band together and form a kingdom, a very large group that holds much more power and has the ability to allow new groups to play.
“A lot of the people that I’m good friends with, they live all over the place so we like to go visit each other,” says Rob. “That’s how these groups start. That’s how these groups thrive.”
“Most people think it’s just a bunch of geeky kids running around,” Brad shrugs. “Well, yeah, but it’s better than playing [World of Warcraft] in your basement.”
Players can participate in more than just field days. There are also large-scale events hosted by other players from other groups. LARPing groups from all across Ontario get together and play games like capture the flag with catapults and ballistics. “If you think this is fun, when you go to an event, you get hooked for life,” says Rob.
But they don’t just fight at these events. “An Amtgard event in a nutshell: fight all day, get hammered and sing all night,” laughs Dan.
But as Rob explains, some of the usual festivities that happen after a day of medieval fighting are much more typical. “After we’re done fighting for the day, it’s getting dark out, so everyone crowds around the fire. And then everyone is singing campfire songs. It becomes a party.”
At the outset, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I learned LARPing isn’t just about fighting or role playing; it’s about getting together with your friends and having a good time. After spending a few hours with this group, it’s clear to me that this isn’t just a game; it’s the way lasting friendships are formed.