Tales from the dorkside — LARPing

The documentary Übergoober (which I’ve only seen the trailer for) mentions a social hierarchy of gamers, in terms of acceptability in both society as a whole and within gaming circles.  I think the hierarchy, from the least shameful to most shameful goes something like this:

  1. historical board wargamers (Avalon Hill/SPI type games)
  2. historical miniatures wargamers (WWII, ancients, etc.)
  3. fantasy/sci-fi miniatures wargamers (Warhammer, etc.)
  4. tabletop role players (D&D, etc.)
  5. live action role players (LARPers — people who dress up as characters, sort of like SCA, but playing games like Vampire)

I suppose chess players, model railroaders, comic book collectors, and so on are kindred spirits but much more within the bounds of normalcy.

I should preface this post with the clarification that no time have ever actually “LARPed” in the sense of creating and dressing as a character in a LARP game.   I’ve seen them doing it at gaming conventions like Origins and hey, if they are having fun who am I to judge?

Anyway when I was in high-school, and occasionally while I was in college, my brother and I and some of our friends made what we called padded weapons.  Lots of them.  The first ones were just dowels or broom handles padded with a few layers of foam pipe insulation and wrapped with duct tape.  We never advanced beyond the duct-tape and pipe insulation padding, but we did (after breaking many wooden hafts and PVC pipes) discover the two absolute best cores were fiber glass poles (of the sort one might purloin from construction sites) and bokkens (wooden practice swords shaped like samurai swords).  We never broke a bokken and very rarely managed to break a fiber glass pole.  Anyway our usual design was 2-3 layers of pipe insulation on the striking surface (“blade”) of a one-handed weapon and 3+ on a two-handed weapon.  The only precautions we took were to ban blows to the head and groin.  Some of us eventually bought cups.  Only one person was ever knocked unconscious by a head blow.  Several of us took to wearing wrist braces, and my brother occasionally accuses me of breaking his thumb (I think it was just a stress fracture from repeated trauma and not, strictly speaking, all my fault.  Learn how to parry!).

Anyway we were vaguely aware that more organized groups did similar things with MUCH more strict safety rules (probably a good idea in hindsight).  For example we knew of a group called “Dagorhir” (I see they are now billing themselves as Middle Earth re-enactors!), and even studied one of their photocopied manuals for ideas about weapon design.  They apparently use marine foam and PVC, and like the Society for Creative Anachronism, have rules about proving you can safely fight, and you can’t swing more than a 90 degree arc with a two-handed weapon (seriously?!?), and stuff like that.  Also, you have to dress like a medieval peasant.  No thanks, we were just in it for the sheer joy of pounding each other senseless.

Our group (about ten or so people in & around Aurora, Ohio) learned that a friend of a friend knew a guy at Hiram College who wanted to try it out too.  I rarely got to go to Hiram because by then I was away at college in Toledo, but the times we went were fairly epic.  Hiram College, frankly, was a glorified high school. (They were a college with bells that rang for the change of periods, for example…)  A lot of very smart kids went there, and a lot of rich ones, and some were both.   Many were apparently übergoobers.

Aurora was hardly a tough town.  Even so, it turned out than anyone in our group was more than a match for any “Hiramite,”  as we called them, and there were several bouts were my brother held off five or six Hiramites with his two-handed sword (with big, sweeping, and, in hindsight, extremely dangerous swings).  I usually fought with two weapons, a sword to parry with and a flail.  We never managed to build useful shields, and instead we tended to use basket-hilted swords and daggers to parry blows.  No doubt this led to the wrist braces.  We built various two-handed axes, swords, pole arms, maces, flails (we never could put enough padding on a two-handed “footman’s flail to make it safe), daggers, etc.  All weapons were tested on their makers, meaning if you wanted to use a weapon you had to let someone else hit you with it, full strength, to demonstrate it was safe and not too painful.   I built a crazy two-handed flanged mace about 5′ long, half head and half haft, which inspired real terror and was dubbed the “Ugly stick” because it didn’t really look like anything but a massive club.

Anyway the point, and I do have one, is that a few years later, when I was in grad school and my brother was working on his second Bachelor’s degree, we were still hanging out with one of the Hiramites, a great guy named Chip, and he found a LARP event (not Dagorhir or anything we’d heard of) about 45 minutes away.  We piled into a car and went to see what it was all about.

Newbies like us were given “Monster” duty, which meant we had to use crappy weapons and would always fight heavily outnumbered (most people like to play heroes and adventurers, go figure).  It was a colossal culture shock.  We were used to hitting really hard — as hard as we’d probably swing real weapons.  One hit to the body, you’re “dead”.  One hit to a limb, “crippled” and as good as dead.  We often fought sort of like they do in samurai movies, jockeying for position and advantage, taking an aimed blow.  Other times we’d fight more like Viking berserks, swing repeatedly, battering the enemy’s weapon aside and then going for the kill.

The LARPers had evolved a mincing way of swinging very fast, very lightly, and when they connected, yelled “two” or “three” or whatever “damage” their weapons did.  They hacked fast and so lightly it was more like a chef dicing a pepper than fighting.

They all wore full costumes (often with makeup, wigs, and fake armor) and as monsters we were given some surcoats to wear over our street clothes.  Because they apparently were trying to simulate something like a table-top RPG’s combat system, everyone had “hit points.”  I suppose the light, rapid blows also made it easier for small, weak, or younger players to be able to fight and win against stronger opponents.  This is the very antithesis of how me, my brother, and the other guys fought.  We enjoyed a little roughness.

The first guy my brother hit, full on the shoulder, fell down and teared up.   I would have similar encounters, where I was swarmed by LARPers and held them at bay with a short spear, stabbing them hard enough to push them back or down.  This did not go over well.

I should explain that by this time I had gotten rather large and scary in college — 6′, over 275 lbs. and with hair down to my ass.  Granted it was mostly fat, but I was fairly strong and even when I was working out daily, running, and lifting weights, I’ve never gotten below 200 lbs.  My brother is a bit taller than me and had been working construction jobs through college, so he was also well over 200 lbs. and about 6’1″ or 2″.  We clearly scared these guys, who were after all just extreme role-playing nerds who wanted to play in the woods.

Did I mention that the guy who cried when my brother hit him had some bizarre dog makeup on too?

That I accidentally hit another guy in the face because he rather carelessly walked toward me with his chef knives while I was fending off a group of several LARPers?

That by the end of the day, no one would even come near us when we appeared as “monsters” — we could actually have a dozen or more people circling us and too scared to approach?

It was magical.

Anyway, we were never invited back.  It is with mixed pride and shame that I write about this.

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Published in: on February 5, 2010 at 2:54 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] passing, and a “Tale from the dorkside,” a phrase that I shamelessly stole for my post on LARPing. (I have many more tales of dorkery I’ll have to post […]


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