On a recent Sunday in Volunteer Park in Seattle, a medieval melee broke out.
The sound of rustling chainmail commingled with deafening thwacks of foam swords against flesh. An armored knight dropped to his knees, raising his spear in anguish and triumph.
“I’m about to whoop somebody’s (expletive) … Oh, I’m dead!”
A few dozen fallen soldiers dotted the field, some sprawled out, their breastplates stained red and their swords and shields saturated with the blood of their enemies. Others with lost limbs helplessly watched the fight progress, unable to assist their comrades.
In their minds, the grassy field where they lay near the Seattle Asian Art Museum was not just a grassy field, but the mystical land of Dargarth – a shadowy realm where fighters, mages, rangers and thieves form alliances, plot against their enemies and, above all, relish the heat of battle.
Dargarth is a LARP – a live-action role-playing game, in which participants act out their characters’ actions in a fictional landscape. Think real-life Dungeons & Dragons with a hearty helping of bruises and adrenaline, instead of dice.
LARPing is a popular activity across the country, with hundreds of chapters, embraced by both theatrical and sporting types.
“Part of it is improv theater. No one uses the word ‘improv,’ but you’re telling a story collaboratively, and you’re saying ‘yes’ (an improv tenet to embrace the unexpected) like the improv guys do,” said John Senner, 30, who founded Dargarth in 2010 and goes by Count Andor. “And not every LARPer is working toward this. Some people come because they want to fight. Some are there because they want to hang out with their friends or build armor.”
From theatrical vampire and steampunk game systems to medieval combat games that leave out role-play altogether (Dargarth’s current president Jerry Lynde calls them “geeks in denial”), there’s a LARP for everyone.
“It’s ridiculously fun to run around in a park and beat on people with foam swords,” said Lynde, 43, whose character is a “Lord of the Rings”-inspired orc. “There’s nothing quite like it.”
Dargarth has an intricate system of governing rules that dictate fight outcomes and character advancement as countries battle over hexes on an imaginary map. LARPers attend biweekly Sunday battles and weekend-long camping trips called adventures, where players’ allegiances are tested as their countries fight to take control of land. Players advance in stature in the game depending on how many battles and adventures they attend.
“I’m a peer of the crown in two fake places,” Senner said in a phone interview from Boulder, Colo., where he lives now. “My wife is looking at me now.”
“Dargarth is a simpler and easier to understand game than a lot of other LARPs,” said Harris Hoffman, 26, who helped Senner start Dargarth in 2010 and goes by Earl Arminius during events. “It keeps the physical aspects of other games, but it also has a lot of the content and depth of games that have more role-play.”
While the stereotypical medieval-combat LARPer is a nerdy young man, Dargarth stands out because of its relatively high number of female members. Lynde estimates the group is about 30 percent women.
“I’ll tell you one thing: Fighter chicks are prized,” said Angela Garcia, 25, in a YouTube documentary about Dargarth and LARP. She specializes in archery and chose her game name, Alicaryn, from a Dungeons & Dragons online name generator. “Whenever I go out on the field and I show that I am actually there to fight, the respect level just shoots through the roof.”
Garcia is a nanny and fitness instructor. Lynde is a tattoo artist, and Senner is a mobile software developer. Hoffman works in online retail. Others are bar-backs, chefs and students, whose ages range from 16 to 43.
But on the field of battle, they’re mercenaries and gypsies, satyrs and wizards – and the object of curious stares from passers-by, who often stay to watch.
“We’re all aware that we’re wearing garb and we look like dorks,” said 26-year-old Kerry Waanenan, self-proclaimed Leader of the Damned.
“We’re also aware we have jobs and lives outside of this. But there’s no real oppression. No one’s telling you what to do. It’s an emulation of an ideal life.”