Sword in hand, dust swirling at my feet, I step onto the field. I look my adversary directly in the eye. He points at me, and we approach each other, dodging the flying arrows. We raise our weapons to begin. I swerve to avoid his jab, fake to the left, and strike his arm. It drops limp to his side, and he wields his sword with one hand. An arrow distracts me, and my adversary takes the opportunity to strike me hard in the chest. I fall to the ground, defeated. Luckily, his weapon is made out of duct tape. We shake hands and return to our respective sides of the field.
If you’ve been to Tam-Tams in Parc Mont Royal on Sundays, you’ve probably seen what some call “those weirdos who swordfight in the woods.” In fact, these people are Live Action Role Playing, or “LARPing,” for short. These faux-medieval battles are also the centre of a multi-faceted community.
The game is simple; you just need some sort of mock weapon to play. Anything is accepted as long as it’s well padded and safe – from small daggers to nine-foot spears to bows and arrows. Players randomly assemble into two lines on opposite sides of a clearing and charge the centre to engage in battle. If somebody hits your limb, that limb is dead and you can’t use it anymore, meaning you must kneel or leave your arm at your side. If you are hit on more than one limb, or once in the chest, you are “dead.”
To encourage safe play, shots to the head and hands don’t count. Different kinds of armour add points; the best kind of armour allows you to withstand five hits to the chest before dying. Much like in ultimate frisbee, there is no referee. The players must call their own fouls and manage the game themselves. Safety is a player’s top priority, and people are generally respectful of each other and of the rules. Nobody I have spoken to has ever sustained serious injuries playing the game, though some were eager to brag about the minor injuries they had received.
Participants cite many different reasons for LARPing. Some have a preexisting interest in fantasy novels, movies, or games. Some are “weapon maniacs.” One young player says that he “just likes to hit things,” but most players state that the adrenaline rush, the stress relief, and the fun are their main reasons for playing. Many have been involved in the community for more than five years.
Most participants are friendly – and surprisingly normal for people walking around Montreal in suits of armour. They are happy to explain the rules and answer questions from newbies like myself. The game is inclusive, and anyone can join.
This openness, however, can sometimes be annoying for skilled players. Many of the adults say that if it were up to them, children, who are known as “hobbits and goblins,” would not be allowed. Also, some find archers to be a nuisance, because one can be killed from afar by a bow and arrow without actually confronting its wielder.
Usually, only about ten per cent of the players at a given time are women, but this does not discourage the few female warriors. In fact, they say that talented female fighters are highly feared and respected by others on the battlefield. Although some women prefer to stay out of direct combat, acting as archers, most relish the violent game. One cites her strategy as “going full on and just killing them all…. It’s all about attitude.”
It’s unclear where and when LARPing was invented, but the game is a well-established tradition in many different areas. It is a diverse hobby, and many of the players are involved in the community outside of the weekly Tam-Tams battle. Groups of friends unite as “guilds” and practice together.
As with any situation, power dynamics develop and rivalries between different groups form. Some of the dominant guilds at Tam-Tams are the Lions, the Blackspears, and the Gueriers de la Montagne. The Gueriers are the largest and act as de facto managers of the community. They are a well-organized group with a leader, a treasurer, and a war chief. Sometimes, two opposing guilds can meet outside of Tam-Tams to have an exclusive battle – a rumble – to solve a dispute.
Other games and activities fall under the LARPing umbrella. For example, a more complex version of capture-the-flag, called Troll Ball, where ten players and two “healers” try to capture a fake troll head and bring it to their side. There is also a battle game called Hold the Bridge, where the objective is to kill the other team’s commander.
Out on the town
Every year at the end of August, over 2,000 enthusiasts gather in a campground outside Montreal for the Bicolline festival. For five days, participants engage in various games and activities, such as chess competitions, weapon and craft shows, quests, and, of course, fights and tournaments of various kinds. The festival ends with an epic battle in which all 2,000 attendees participate.
The guild that wins is then named champion for the rest of the year. The title for 2008 went to the Phoenix guild, but it has been held for the previous two years by the Guariers de la Montagne. This battle is something like a giant game of risk, with different guilds trying to win as much territory as possible. The fight was especially exciting this year because the previous holder of the “Key of Knowledge” quit the game and a new holder had to be decided on the battlefield.
Being involved in the community can be time-consuming and costly. Store-bought swords go for around $200 and armour can cost up to $1,000. Some players make their own chainmail by painstakingly linking metal hoops together. One player said his vest took 88 hours to make. Attending the Bicolline festival can cost up to $500 for a ticket, transportation, lodging, and food.
The players are very diverse and have wide-ranging reasons for their interest in LARPing. In games like Dungeons & Dragons and Warcraft, a player chooses an avatar and sticks with that character – a druid or a wizard, for instance – but this isn’t always true for LARPing. The people who are drawn to the role-play aspect of the game are the ones in costume, like the demi-elf and pirate-war chief I ran into.
After speaking to so many fighters, I decided that I had to try out the game for myself. A man wearing chainmail, with no hair except for a small ginger tuft at the top of his head, was standing near the edge of the clearing with a variety of foam and duct-tape weapons. After explaining that he rents weapons to newbies and helps them learn the rules, he decided to give me a free trial reserved for “pretty ladies.” Apparently, medieval swordfighting enthusiasts don’t have the easiest time meeting girls.
After a few practice duels, I nervously followed one of his friends onto the official battlefield. The first round, I was too overwhelmed to actually participate. I followed my new friend around awkwardly until a nine-year-old kid came out of nowhere and whacked me in the chest with a spear. The next few times, I worked up enough courage to attempt a few pathetic jabs at other fighters, but always had my arm tagged within the first 30 seconds. All of them managed to thoroughly kick my ass. With a little practice, however, I managed to successfully stay in combat a little while before “dying.”
Although I didn’t fare so well myself, I can see how LARPing becomes addictive. First, there’s the escape into a fantasy world where you can feel accepted being anything from your regular old self to a demi-elf-pirate-warlord. There’s the thrill of charging into an epic brawl with 30 of your comrades. And there’s the therapeutic value of what one fighter calls “physically manifesting your daemons and beating the crap out of them.”
LARPing isn’t just for “weirdos” – in fact, I would recommend the sport to anyone. It seems that people who swordfight in the woods for fun are no geekier than those who play football, or sing in a band, or even a certain person who spends her spare time writing 1,500-word articles.