Live-Action Role-Players Get Boffed in Amtgard

Amid flailing swords and flying shields, these modern-day knights fight on

Today's battle has been tough on the one called Germ.

Early on, he took a shield to the nose, knocking him to his knees. This was followed a short while later by the unfortunate meeting of Germ's face with an opponent's staff. Sure, the weapons are padded, but with a graphite core, some damage can be done. Germ leans over, runs his fingertips over his freshly split lip and spits a bloody glob to the ground. This time, he'll take a break.

Not that Germ hasn't been kicking his share of ass today. Tall and lean, the 23-year-old with the mohawk and braided beard is fast and, barring the occasional foam-force trauma, quite coordinated.

A black school bus delivered a horde of fighters to Jack Brooks Park in Hitchcock.
Craig Malisow
A black school bus delivered a horde of fighters to Jack Brooks Park in Hitchcock.
Daniel Kramer

Once on the sideline, he drops his shield and sword, and soon someone hands him a Dr Pepper. He surveys the scene here at Jack Brooks Park in Hitchcock, about 40 miles south of Houston: dozens of people dressed up in pseudo-medieval garb, running around a field wet from yesterday's rain, bopping each other with foam-padded swords and spears known as "boffers." And they're having an absolute blast. As Germ, a.k.a. Josh Lake of Pasadena, puts it: "You get to hit people with sticks, and they don't call the cops."

They're playing Amtgard, a live-action role-playing game (LARP) that has become one of the most popular games of its kind, drawing teens and adults, men and women, geeks and non-geeks, to parks for battle, music, socializing and a healthy dose of smack-talk. What started with a few people in an El Paso park in 1983 has blossomed into a network of chapters — "kingdoms" — spread throughout the world.

Live-action role-playing might best be described as the mutant spawn of the Renaissance Festival and tabletop adventures like Dungeons & Dragons.

In 1977, three years after D&D first hit the shelves, some enterprising medieval buffs in Maryland created a game called Dagorhir. As it spread through surrounding states, players established new kingdoms. Players invented personas, and they fought with whatever crude faux weaponry they could cobble together — swords with PVC-pipe cores, swathed in the foam guts of a couch. Hitting someone's leg or arm meant that he or she lost that limb; hitting certain areas twice caused death. Dagorhir had a rulebook and a code, but mostly it was an excuse to go out and have fun.

Enter a Virginian in his early twenties named Jim Haren Jr. From most accounts, he brought with him a personality with equal parts charisma and confrontation. No one in Dagorhir knew much about him, other than the fact that he was really into his persona, Musashi, who exemplified Haren's more abrasive tendencies. Wanting more control in the game, he created a splinter group called Kagehiri. According to an Amtgard historian, those who followed Haren had trouble with his ego, causing Haren to dissolve and establish a series of short-lived Dagorhir subsets, with names like Warriors of the Golden Dawn and Sons of the Black Death Jungle Combo and Storm Door Company.

Haren soon gained a reputation as one of the game's more renowned jerks, and he became a favorite target on the battlefield. In a bid to shed his reputation, he had his character commit seppuku, a samurai ritual suicide. He walked off the battlefield, only to return about 15 minutes later wearing an eye patch and calling himself Peter La Grue. La Grue was supposed to be a Viking, a persona wholly unlike Musashi, but it turned out he was still a prick. He hung around for a few months, only to disappear without explanation.

In February of 1983, an El Paso newspaper ran a classified ad announcing "Attila the Hun's Birthday Brawl." Similar flyers appeared all over the city, and on February 12, a small, curious crowd turned up at Ponder Park, eager to see just exactly what the deal was. And the deal was a dude in a gray tunic and black-and-white leggings, calling himself Peter La Grue — Grue, for short. He had a few weapons, which he said were for a game he had invented called Amtgard. He eventually showed them the rulebook, which was actually the Dagorhir rulebook with the cover ripped off and an Amtgard design Scotch-taped on.

Haren lucked out — the first folks to show up included a newspaper reporter and the organizers of a local sci-fi/fantasy convention. As goofy as they found the first outing, word spread, and each week found more people at the park. Haren charged each person a dollar a day to play — cheap enough, but soon the newbies found the real cost was putting up with Haren's obnoxious behavior. It wasn't long before he was kicked out of his own game (or, to be more precise, the game he "invented").

The new guard established the Kingdom of the Burning Lands and tweaked the rules enough to separate themselves from Dagorhir — most prominently in the addition of fantasy characters like wizards and monsters, and incorporating the use of magical spells. The game also has an incredibly detailed class system and elaborate procedures for obtaining knighthood. Subsequent chapters popped up throughout Texas, including Houston (Kingdom of the Wetlands), Austin-San Antonio (Celestial Kingdom); and Dallas/Fort Worth (Kingdom of the Emerald Hills). In the 25 years since Haren was exiled, the game has gone through seven editions of its rulebook and seen the advent of regional and national events.

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