Battle Magic

Finding real community in fantasy worlds

LARP (photos by B Mroz)
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You may not be aware of this, but until recently, Peterborough was in open war with Ottawa. Both sides blame each other, but most here in Linnagond (a.k.a. Peterborough) say it’s all the fault of the Duke of Felfrost (a.k.a. Ottawa).

The Duke and some Felfrost emissaries were in Linnagond for a coronation—normally a happy occasion. There was an attack by a black dragon lurking in the dark swamps south of the town (right around Rice Lake, in fact), but the two sides banded together and quickly dispatched the foe.

But, see, this particular Duke was known for celebrating his victories by eating his defeated foes.

The local green dragon, who keeps a sleepy but watchful eye over Linnagond from his home in Jackson Park (under that one tree that sort of looks like a sleeping dragon, in fact), sensed something was amiss, and called on the elemental power of lightning to strike down the Duke and the dragon essence inside him. The Duke commanded a healer to extract the black dragon, who quickly came back to life and rampaged through the peaceful coronation ceremony, turning it into a bloodbath.

The Felfrost-Linnagond War stretched on for months, until a more peaceful monarchy came into Felfrost, and a truce was struck.

This is LARP, or live-action roleplay, an immersive game, storytelling experience, and growing community. Players take on characters, build weapons and sew garb, and head out into the field to act out combat scenarios and epic quests. In Peterborough, the medieval fantasy LARP Amtgard (think Lord of the Rings) has taken hold, and transformed our humble borough into the dark and marshy Barony of Linnagond, full of valiant heroes, devious assassins, powerful wizards trained in the arcane arts, and monarchs of variable character.

LARP (photos by B Mroz)Linnagond is a small but dedicated community. 20 or so people battle regularly, and another 30 join the fray when they can—and Linnagond is only a small part of the Kingdom of Goldenvale, which stretches from Sudbury to Connecticut and encompasses over 20 parks. Events like the yearly Keep on the Borderlands in Illinois attract hundreds of Amtgarders from across the Kingdom.

Here in Linnagond, the LARPers can be found regularly in Victoria Park, running combat drills, playing battlegames, and questing; and at Sadleir House for crafting nights, teaching each other the arts of leathercraft, chainmail, garment making, and, yes, how to build foam swords. “This is more than a hobby; this is lifestyle,” says Grace Crichton, who helped found the local park five years ago. “We have Amtgard four nights a week now. It’s taking over!”

But the true heart of Amtgard isn’t the swordplay or the over-the-top fantasy stories; it’s the community that it builds. LARP often (though not exclusively) attracts a certain type of nerd and outcast, people who stand at odds with the mainstream. Together, they have found a place for social interaction, athleticism, craftsmanship, and joyous fantasy. “If it was just a game, I could play any other video game or sport and get the same fulfillment,” says Dylan Flippance, “but coming back to this, seeing these people every day…. They were my Amtgard friends, but now they’re just my friends.”

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The gameplay of Amtgard is deceptively simple. Each player has a set amount of health, with armour adding protection. A hit to a limb disables that limb, and enough hits can kill (temporarily—people rarely stay dead for long). Different classes have different specialties and abilities: a warrior will probably run at you with his sword drawn, while an assassin will try for a stealth kill. Magic users can cast a range of spells, some by yelling out strange incantations, and some in the form of brightly coloured spell balls, each with a different effect. Games move quick, and life goes cheap. So it is in a medieval fantasy world.

LARP (photos by B Mroz)Gameplay can take many different forms. Linnagond is mainly a ‘boffer combat’ park, which means they run a lot of short battlegames with simple rules and not a lot of roleplay: capture the flag, team deathmatch, castle defense, and so on. Amtgard borrows game types freely from online video gaming, the playground, and anywhere else, then gives them a magical twist.

More complex are the quests. These have longer, story-based gameplay, centered around the individual characters that each Amtgarder builds for themselves and develops over years. Quests run from a few hours, to months- or years-long epics. Characters’ lives are forever changed, enemies long thought dead return, and a complex mythology is gradually constructed. Quests also frequently involve elaborate props, real-world puzzles to solve, and Amtgarders stepping in to play extra characters for the players to interact with—and then most likely kill.

“It’s live-action theatre,” says Terry Convey. “You think through what happened in-game, and how the character will interact next time. You discover intricacies about your character that you didn’t know they had.”

The quests are written by ‘smiths,’ essentially any player in the park with a good idea and the drive to write it. Crafting a good quest is hard work. No matter how clear a path the smith sets for the players, they can always choose to turn left. In this type of real-time, collaborative storytelling, anything can happen.

LARP (photos by B Mroz)Tyler Salvador is a natural smith. In his day job he’s a children’s entertainer and magician, and he spends his free time running Dungeons & Dragons games and designing board games. Like in any good improv, “the golden rule is, you want to say yes,” he explains. “If a player says, ‘Hey my character’s lineage is half-squirrel. Does that mean I can climb this tree?’ If you can say yes, you empower them.” Other times—like when the bulk of one quest was about getting into a mansion past a locked gate, and one player mentioned that they had a teleportation spell and could just pop right in there—it all goes horribly wrong, and the smith has to think fast.

Quests can also introduce new and innovative game mechanics. Tyler has a long ongoing quest called the Skeleton War, where people’s skeletons are coming alive inside of them and taking control, for some as yet unknown (and deeply creepy) reason. At the start of the arc, each player was dealt two playing cards for their own skeleton: one with a buff (a skill) and one with a character trait, as well as the card’s suit and number. At various points in the quest, Tyler will draw a card, call “Spades!”, and anyone with a spade card is suddenly under the control of their newly awoken skeleton. Things get real weird, real fast, especially since one player decided his skeleton talked with a bad Brooklyn accent, and many others followed.

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LARP (photos by B Mroz)It’s a Tuesday evening at Sadleir House, far away from the carnage of the battlefield. A group of Amtgarders have gathered for their weekly crafting night. They sit around a table spilling over with colourful ribbons, fabrics, beads, and other supplies, telling battle stories and catching up on the past week, as they build new weapons, armour, garb, and other gear for the field.

In one corner, Julie Thornburg is weaving together colourful wire into coronets. It’s meticulous, exacting work, but this is her specialty. She shows me pictures on her phone of past work: complex interwoven dreamcatchers she’s made for relatives and an official crown for the Canadian parks that she designed and built. It’s another piece of wirework, full of elegant curves building into a delicate maple leaf design.

“I like to play with themes,” says Julie. She grew up in an artistic household, and has been crafting since she was four, when her grandmother taught her how to sew. “That was my first crafting project, and it’s been downhill from there.”

LARP (photos by B Mroz)Crafting is the way into Amtgard for many players. Leah Welch, who is decked out on field day in a bright pink wizard’s outfit featuring a jaunty peaked hat, has always loved making costumes, and found a reason to wear them in Amtgard. Unlike cosplay or re-enactment, she enjoys the freedom of LARP, where she can build a character from the ground up and dress them any way she wants. Similarly, Vince Doucette was a medieval enthusiast long before he was a LARPer, and showed up on his first field day in a set of homemade chainmail armour.

Even the foam weaponcraft, perhaps Amtgard’s most toy-like aspect, is a true skillset. For safety reasons, weapons, armours, shields, and arrows have to meet exacting requirements in material, weight, and softness, and they’re examined carefully at the start of each field day. Amtgarders understand in-depth the subtle differences between different kinds of foam, and the best use of each. Says Rob Homewood, “I can build a short sword for under five bucks, if I get the right graphite golf club from Value Village.”

LARP (photos by B Mroz)The arrows, with their bulbous soft tips, seem like they should be far too top-heavy to fly, but the best-crafted ones can go as far as 150 feet. In fact, the Ontario parks are known for their excellent fletching. Institutional knowledge is built up and passed down through workshops, mentorships, and quiet nights just like this.

Grace rarely heads out onto the field because of a medical condition, but she is still one of the organization’s most involved players, with a position in the Kingdom-wide volunteer government and a mentorship role for many young players. “I believe firmly that you can be an Amtgarder without ever picking up a stick, by embracing the crafting and the roleplaying end of things,” she says. “I was here two weeks ago plucking lilac blossoms off their stems to make lilac lemonade for an event we just had. I brought a couple bags of lilacs, and we all sat in a circle, plucked lilacs, and roleplayed. It was fantastic.”

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Amtgard as an organization is set up to reward skills of all types. Achievements called ‘orders’ can be bestowed for everything from beautiful suits of armour to heartbreaking bardic ballads, chivalry in gameplay, and writing a document to help guide new players through the game. Essentially, if it in some way aids the game or the community, Amtgard has a framework for recognizing and encouraging it. This is an essential tool for keeping the game alive. “Having people in the community who say, ‘Hey let’s do a thing, let’s draw people in,’ can make or break a community,” says Julie.

LARP (photos by B Mroz)As players progress, they gain noble titles which grant special in-game privileges, including the ability to take on a new player as a ‘page.’ The pages serve at the pleasure of their nobleperson in-game, but out of game, it becomes a mentor-mentee relationship, with the nobleperson guiding their page through the game and the community. Julie beams with pride as she tells me that her page has decided to run for government in the upcoming mid-reign elections.

Amtgard has also embraced the internet as an essential tool for connecting Amtgarders across North America. On Facebook and Discord, players gather to share useful tips, discuss lore, and announce upcoming events, as well as sharing dumb memes about skeletons. Facebook is also home to many of the informal ‘households’ and ‘fighting companies,’ which have sprouted to connect like-minded players of all types across geographical barriers.

LARP (photos by B Mroz)The Crimson Vixens, for example, was an early female-only fighting company that was instrumental in proving women could be battle gamers, and the Safe Space Household allows LGBT and non-binary gender Amtgarders from across Ontario to discuss their struggles in and outside of the game. Grace has a rainbow woven into her elaborate Amtgard belt, and a Safe Space rainbow flag hangs from it, “as a signal that, if something goes on that you’re uncomfortable with, you can come to me and I am here to talk. What you tell me will be kept in strict confidentiality, unless you want to do something about it.”

These groups are helping to change the face of Amtgard, bringing in codes of conduct and basic visibility of minority groups. Amtgard is working hard to be open and accessible to everyone.

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Back in March, dozens of Amtgarders descended on our fair Linnagond for a full weekend of fantasy play. Kinsmen Park was packed with battlegames, while crafters took over the nearby St. Alphonsus Columbus Hall on Frank Street. But the event wasn’t simply another LARP; it was a massive fundraiser for the Canadian Mental Health Association.

It’s a cause near and dear to the community. Grace, who co-organized the event, explains, “There is a very high incidence within our LARP of mental health problems. We are the nerds, the outcasts. We are the nobodies who have found a family and gathered together. There is a lot of social anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, autism spectrum disorder. And this is a place where we have found a way to come together as a community and have fun despite that, and be someone else for a while.”

LARP (photos by B Mroz)It’s all too easy to poke fun at LARPers. Their costumes are often colourful and absurd, their world is fantastical and bizarre, and their game, at least on the surface, bears a striking resemblance to a schoolyard at recess. There is a childlike nature to imaginative play—particularly when it involves medieval fantasy dress-up—that many of us left behind years ago, and now deride.

Nerds have always lived uneasily on the fringes of society, resigned—or content, or sometimes even proud—to dive in deep on things that the rest of the world couldn’t care less about. But being on the fringes can have its benefits: nerds are often early adopters of technologies, games, and pop culture. The rise of superhero blockbusters and prestige television dramas about zombies are evidence of that.

While the high-fantasy, hit-each-other-with-sticks world of Amtgard may not be for everyone, there is something powerful in what it represents. Whether it’s on a LARP field, within a local arts scene, or at a hockey game, something utterly magical happens when a group of people get together on the same wavelength and try to create something as one—whether it’s a collective story about skeletons, a new way to construct foam arrows, or a burgeoning community.

 

Photos by B. Mroz.

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Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock

Gabe Pollock is Editor-in-Chief and co-Publisher of Electric City Magazine. He is a Peterborough-born freelance writer and editor who has covered Peterborough music and culture since 2012, first on Electric City Live and now in its magaziney successor.