By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
It is Sunday at Jones Point Park, and today is the day Marcus finds glory on the battlefield.
The warrior prepares for war by strapping on his steel chest plate and greaves. It may limit his movement but, standing more than 6 feet tall, Marcus now appears even more fearsome, an armored machine of war ready to strike his opponents. He takes out his sword and stands with his fellow combatants.
Tension hangs in the air. The pre-battle hum of wracked nerves and excitement vibrates on a subconscious frequency. Finally, the battle begins. Marcus charges forward into the fray. He dispatches an opponent with a quick flurry of blows and moves on to his next challenger. But he is quickly overwhelmed by enemy forces and sustains a fatal blow to the chest. “Perhaps this is not my day,” Marcus thinks to himself as he is swallowed by the cold embrace of death.
Or maybe it is.
“You got me,” Alex Parris, aka Marcus, says to his opponent in a tone that conveys both disappointment and admiration. He gets up and walks back to the “respawn zone” where he will be able to reenter the fight after a few seconds. This is a game after all, one of the weekly sessions held by Rising Sun Station, a group of live action roleplayers who gather at Jones Point Park to swing foam swords, act out medieval fantasies and create a community of self-described, like-minded nerds.
“We are a community of nerds who enjoy roleplaying and playing out fantasies in battle games,” Ashlly Boger, the current monarch, or chapter head, of Rising Sun Station, said. “Another way of saying it is it’s real-life Dungeons & Dragons.”
To those outside the community, live action roleplaying, or LARPing, can seem like a curiosity – and it is. Boger said that it’s not uncommon for passersby at Jones Point Park to stop, ask questions or just stare with mild curiosity at a group of strangers dressed in medieval garb.
But the roots of LARPing go back decades. Inspired by tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons and the allure of the fantasy genre, the first LARPs started in the 1970s. Although Rising Sun Station was not founded until 2011, it is part of a larger kingdom, the Kingdom of Crystal Groves, which includes individual “parks” from Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The Kingdom of Crystal Groves is, in turn, part of Amtgard, an international LARP organization that was founded by Jim Haren Jr. in El Paso, Texas in 1983.
Broadly speaking, LARP in general and Rising Sun in particular afford people of all ages the opportunity to create and roleplay as characters who then engage in combat, crafts and spontaneous acts of creation.
“Amtgard is a society of nerds that meet across the country on weekends to hit each other with foam sticks, to do medieval style crafts and to have fun being together in a fantasy world,” one player, who preferred to go by his character name, Léal, said.
Players are encouraged to participate in Rising Sun in whatever way they want.
There are the competitive, combat-focused battle games that involve swinging foam weaponry and casting spells. In Rising Sun, these are often the focus of every session and can take the form of one-on-one tournament style duels or larger games between groups of combatants.
“It’s basically you’re letting out your inner 6-year-old except your mom doesn’t yell at you for accidentally knocking someone’s eye out,” Alex Hu, who plays a warrior named Foameric, said.
Members create a character and assume a role, which gives them certain strengths, weaknesses and abilities on the battlefield. Boger, for instance, plays as Iona Hallewell, an assassin who is able to move nimbly across the field and poison her opponents. Paris’ character, Marcus, is a warrior and sellsword who excels at jumping head first into fights. Meanwhile, Raine Hoffman plays a druid, a type of spell caster who can freeze people in their tracks or “heat up” another player’s weapon, forcing them to drop it.
“The feeling that you get when you’re like, ‘No, you’re not doing anything for the next 30 seconds’ and being able to influence the battlefield without a stick – because I’m not that good with a stick – is [empowering],” Hoffman said.
Much like in traditional tabletop roleplaying, creating a character for Rising Sun is part creative writing assignment and part mechanical assessment. Players write their back stories and learn the combat rules laid out by Amtgard. Over time, players level up their characters and acquire more powerful abilities that they can use during games.
“There are six levels for each class, and it requires you to accumulate credits,” Boger said. “For each day that you go to a park or an event, you would get a certain amount of credits. You accumulate these credits to reach a certain level.”
Battle games are not entirely about competition; there is also a roleplaying component that Boger tries to encourage among the members of Rising Sun.
“Every player has their persona, which is their character that they’re personifying. In battle, you can say something, do something that your character would do,” Boger said. “A lot of our players are part of the sport aspect of Amtgard – they like to fight – but we’re slowly dragging them into the RP [roleplaying] aspect of, ‘Give us a great death.’ And they’ll put on a show of their death. … We’ll have moments like that, and we’ll pull the seriousness from the battle and be more funny or just act it out.”
There is also a strong crafting component to Rising Sun. Members take pride in the garb they cobble together. For some, crafting is actually the central focus of their participation in Rising Sun. While others take to the battlefield, these members stay on the sidelines, customizing armor for themselves or other members, making their own yarn and exercising their creative muscles.
“I personally already knew how to make my own costumes because my mother sews, but we have what’s known as Arts and Science Nights where we can teach somebody how to make their own garb or teach somebody how to make their own swords,” Boger said.
Members choose to join Rising Sun for a variety of reasons, but they all agreed that the community formed around LARP is what keeps them coming back every Sunday. While participation has diminished during the pandemic and winter months – about 15 to 20 people regularly come out on Sundays right now – some events, such as quest days that pull together multiple parks, attract upward of 50 to 60 people.
“It’s not just about the roleplay. It’s about these people that have become my friends and become a family to me,” Boger said. “[It’s] not just in the LARPing experience. They’re there for me no matter what.”
The assassin and the Lost Boys
Boger was first introduced to Rising Sun Station in 2017 when her boyfriend at the time took her to a session at Jones Point Park. Although her ex-boyfriend no longer plays, she has continued and now serves as monarch for Rising Sun.
“I started out as just being a player that would come out maybe every other weekend, spend some time with my boyfriend. These were my boyfriend’s friends. Then, I started to get to know them, and I started really enjoying the fighting and the storytelling. It pulled me more into wanting to be a part of it and to help shape it into a fun game for everybody,” Boger said.
As soon as she steps into Jones Point Park, Boger becomes Iona Hallowell, an assassin for hire. To match the shadowy presence of her character, Boger wears all black robes with the only hint of color being a dark green patterned belt around her waist.
As monarch, Boger does not get to play in the battle games as much as she used to. Instead, she creates the games and the overarching theme that will run throughout the course of her six-month reign as monarch: Neverland and the Lost Boys.
Practically, that means that every game involves players assuming the role of either a Lost Boy or Pirate as they battle to achieve various goals in the fantasy world of Neverland. One day, the Lost Boys are trying to defend a pixie dust tree from the pirates who are trying to poison its roots. Another day, Boger takes the fight to the high seas, as Lost Boys and pirates navigate between two ships to raise a flag and claim victory.
The boats are marked with cones on the ground and the flagpole is imaginary, but members relish the opportunity to embrace their inner child and let loose their imagination, Boger said.
Over the last five years, Iona has grown as a character and Boger has grown alongside her, she said. It’s not quite method acting, but putting on her garb and assuming the role of a deadly assassin has been freeing in ways she did not expect.
“Iona definitely is more outgoing than I am, and it’s brought me to be more confident in myself and to know mistakes happen and to learn from them – because my character goes through a lot of mistakes,” Boger laughed.
However, unlike Iona, Boger has had to endure a global pandemic and adapt the way Rising Sun operates in the process.
When COVID-19 hit the U.S. in March 2020, Amtgard’s board of directors decided that parks could no longer meet. Organizations based entirely around in-person community building had to quickly pivot and find ways to keep people engaged. There were online Dungeons & Dragons sessions and virtual game nights, but for some players, the experience was not the same.
“All the crafting people, all the people who are very diehard Amtgard were participating. And then all the sport people who are just in it for the battle games and to fight and the glory and the awards, they kind of tapered off a little bit,” Boger said.
Once Rising Sun transitioned back to in-person events in July 2021 with health regulations in place, those members returned to the fold. Boger said she breathed a sigh of relief when she heard the news that Rising Sun and its entirely volunteer-run operations could get back to business.
“We all try to help each other as much as possible. We all want to have so much fun,” Boger said. “Everything gets done by people volunteering their time, and you want to volunteer your time to make it fun for people that you care about.”
The half-dragon bard
LARPing is collective storytelling through action. For individuals, it can also function as a tool for self-reflection, self-discovery and self-creation.
Léal, who has been LARPing since July 2015 and joined Rising Sun in 2019, said that by embracing another character, he can leave behind the baggage of his daily, mundane life and become something else. Léal admitted his character, a half-dragon bard named Léal Fitzmorgan De Junshin, is not too far removed from his own personality but that through roleplaying he is able to embrace and exaggerate qualities of himself and explore others. There is an element of escapism to LARP, but performance and play also provide an opportunity for self-expression.
“Léal is very much me with an emphasis on certain characteristics,” Léal said. “I am a physicist; Léal is not. But the way he treats people is very similar to the way I treat people, and how he thinks about things is also very similar.”
While some bards sing, others tell stories. Léal the bard is a songwriter of sorts – he is often humming or whistling “absentminded music,” Léal said. More than that, he is a lightweaver, someone who is able to use music to create pictures made out of light.
LARPing is a creative outlet for Léal, an extension of the kind of imaginative play that he used to do as a kid but, as an adult, no longer has an outlet for. By exercising those creative muscles, Léal has found that it improves his life outside of Rising Sun in concrete ways.
“When I do a craft or do the combat piece, that motivates me to do other exercises or other crafts,” Léal said. I’m a grad student at the moment. I’m studying physics education, so when I look at how people learn, I turn it around and look at Amtgard and say, ‘How is this fantasy game similar to the science realm?’ It’s something that I love so much, and it’s something where I can experiment with understanding different concepts in a space that’s more accessible to me right now.”
As one of the more veteran LARPers in Rising Sun, Léal is also able to foster this kind of creativity in others. Mentoring is built into the systems of Rising Sun and Amtgard. Léal is a squire to a knight, which means he has two pages that he works with. The relationship between a squire and their pages can vary depending on how much time and effort the squire is willing to invest, but Léal takes the role seriously.
“My pages have a very personal relationship with me, and they are some of the few people that actually get to see more of my mundane side because that’s meant to be a deeper friendship than, ‘Hey I’m going to teach you how to be good at this game that we do,’” Léal said. “… My relationship with my pages is meant to be a very personal relationship where I try to support them in their mundane stuff as well as their Amtgard goals.”
The honorable sellsword
Marcus is a man with a code, and so is Alex Paris.
A relatively recent recruit to Rising Sun, Paris starting LARPing in September 2021, but he has already established himself as one of the most committed members of the local LARP community.
At more than 6 feet tall and covered in steel armor that weighs upward of 15 pounds, Paris is hard to miss. When he swings his foam sword, he does so with purpose and technique. It’s not surprising considering he used to take part in German longsword recreation, learning and practicing actual sword fighting techniques.
After not practicing for a few years, Paris was introduced to Rising Sun through his wife and immediately found a new outlet for a retired passion.
“It takes the basis of that original ‘combat’ that I learned and brings it into the real world,” Paris said. “You get to really lose yourself in the moment where you are that character and you’re in that moment and your foam shield becomes the wooden shield it’s mocked up to be.”
Marcus, the third level warrior Paris plays as, is a microcosm of Paris’ roleplaying interests. In battle, he is meant to be the center of attention so that his enemies don’t focus on his comrades.
“He’s a bit of a sellsword. He has his code of ethics, which consists of if he’s paid, he’ll do the job. But once he’s paid, he’s paid. Nobody can go, ‘Oh, I’ll offer you double whatever they’re giving you,’” Paris said. “… For me, it’s more about having fun and fighting the right way. … If somebody slips and falls, he’s not going to run over and bop them.”
Paris said he finds his thrills in combat and the various battle games that Boger cooks up. In Amtgard, combat operates on a location-based hit system. A hit to the torso is a kill shot, while a limb hit means the combatant loses the use of that limb. Two limb hits also mean death, which equates to the player returning to a designated area on the battlefield where they have to wait for a specific amount of time before reentering the game.
As a warrior, Marcus has the ability to wear armor, and Paris takes full advantage of that. Throughout the week he tinkers with his armor, some of which he found at local Renaissance fairs. In-game, the armor allows Marcus to take more hits before falling in battle.
It’s not all about the battle for Paris though. Recalling Feast of the Dead, a kingdom-wide event that took place around Halloween, Paris said certain members would sign up to serve as non-player characters who would give players quests and the chance to roleplay conversations.
“I was watching a scene where someone who signed up to be [a non player character] was having this very intense confrontation with another character,” Paris recalled. “After [the player] stormed off, I engaged [the NPC] in a little bit of conversation, and after two or three sentences, they were like, ‘You know what you can do for me? Here’s two gold. Go kill that character.’ I was like, ‘Ok, done.’ So, I wandered over, stabbed them, walked away, and then I met up with that character again later, magical spells and healing being a thing, and they said, ‘Why did you do it?’ I was like, ‘I got paid. No hard feelings.’”
Paris said he went into his first LARP session assuming the combination of roleplaying and rule-heavy combat would be overwhelming, but instead he almost immediately found a new group of friends.
“Even when you’re in the middle of the battlefield, even when you’re up against a new person or someone who’s been playing the game for 10-plus years, everybody is super welcoming and concerned about making sure everybody has a great time,” Paris said.
“I would say the community has been a huge component of why I continue to come back to Amtgard,” Paris added. “You just meet a lot of great people, and at the end of the day they know me as Marcus and that’s all I need to be. I don’t need to worry about anything else. I am Marcus when I’m there.”