On a recent Sunday in Volunteer Park, 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 ass … 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.
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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, where 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. It’s no wonder there are at least five active LARPs in and around Seattle, a city with a strong tech community, a do-it-yourself mentality and a penchant for the outdoors.
“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.”
Rules of play
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.”
Some come for the fantasy, some solely for the sport.
“I wanted to dress up like a knight and beat up some nerds,” said Daniel Byrne, 25, who wields a mace called The Innkeeper’s Daughter.
“It’s more fun than ultimate frisbee and it’s better exercise than video games.”
For others, LARP has led to love. Lynde met his wife, Aleeshia Viktora, on the field of battle in Montana.
“I’m trying not to sound egotistical, but I’m a decent fighter, and here’s this little girl come up at me on the field,” said Lynde. “I thought, ‘Cool, I’ll take it easy on her. I’ll be nice.’ Then she just lit me up with swords and was beating my butt. I was like, ‘What was that?’ … So I started taking her seriously.”
When the two moved to Seattle four years ago, they joined Dargarth and founded the Holy Order of Mârdûr, an enlightened monster nation. Though Viktora no longer comes to Dargarth events, Lynde still participates, wearing a black and cream surcoat, a Utilikilt and unearthly green contact lenses, and wielding a foam great sword that inspires terror and panic on the battlefield.
Armed and dangerous
Nick Costa, also known as Bran, is the group’s go-to weapons guru. Costa has sword construction down to a science, layering foams of different densities around a fiberglass core to safely absorb the impact of a hit.
Fighting with foam swords isn’t like being hit with pillows — they can definitely give you bruises. Though safety is a priority — swords and arrows are checked before use and there’s a trained medic in the group — Lynde has broken his hand and nearly detached his right retina. The worst he’s seen is a mild concussion.
Injury doesn’t stop Quinn Forman, 26, also known as the dwarven demigod Vodin.
“I blew my knee out on my first day, taped it up with duct tape, and went back to fighting,” he said. A tech analyst for Boeing, Forman comes from a background of football, soccer, rugby and hockey but considers Dargarth one of his addictions because of the camaraderie. He has been LARPing for 15 years.
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.”