By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
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.
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.
For a game so steeped in fantasy, the origin of its name is quite banal. Haren named it after two friends, Matthew and Katy Amt, he knew from his Kagehiri days. The Amts (brother and sister) say they and Haren parted on bad terms, and they weren't even aware of the game until about five years ago.
"I think [we] just had a big yuck over it," Matthew Amt recalls from his office in Pennsylvania, "because we all assumed it would crash in flames, and that would be the end of another Grue story."
The Amts recall Haren turning up on their porch one night; a neighbor called to alert them. He was huddled in the corner, sleeping. The Amt family took him in for a few weeks, but Haren wouldn't talk about his relationship with his own family. All he'd ever say, according to Matthew Amt, was that he was the "white sheep" of the family. Before he left for El Paso, he moved from couch to couch, even living at one point in someone's walk-in closet.
"He's been spotted a few times since then," says Amtgard historian and transplanted Houstonian Michael Lynch. "But basically since...'84 or '85, he hasn't been in Amtgard at all."
Subsequent Haren sightings are akin to glimpses of Sasquatch. Reports have had him working as a department store Santa Claus, living on the streets of San Francisco and once turning up at an Amtgard battle in Hermann Park, demanding royalties from these people who were so brazenly playing his copyrighted game. Although Haren never made much money off Amtgard, he had an entrepreneurial spirit that might have been a gift from his dad.
Speaking from his home in Florida, James "Bulldog" Haren Sr. says he hasn't heard from his son in about three years and is not sure where he's living.
The elder Haren runs a home health-care service for seniors that has branches in Florida and Texas. He's proud enough of his achievements to post them on his company's Web site. These include having his name above the varsity weight room at Virginia Tech, his alma mater, and being listed in the International Who's Who of Intellectuals.
The Web site also cites Haren Sr.'s business acumen, which includes founding "two national corporations." Although the names of these corporations are missing, business filings in Virginia and Florida show Haren Sr. as the head of International Inventors, Inc., and the International Bartending Institute. The former charged budding Edisons $250 to evaluate the "marketability" of their contraptions, and, in 1979, received a warning from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for allegedly misrepresenting franchise agreements. The FTC ordered Haren Sr. to disclose a success ratio, to provide a ten-day cooling-off period and to give copies of the FTC order to employees and prospective clients. Fifteen years later, the FTC fined Haren Sr.'s bartending school franchise $50,000 for allegedly violating the 1979 order. (Because Haren Sr. wrote the International Bartending Institute's textbook, which was sold to students, he's listed on his current Web site as a "bestselling author").
Haren Jr.'s half-brother Greg Haren runs one of his father's Houston locations. He says he hasn't seen his half-brother in about nine years and that, at one point, Haren Jr. was living with his mother in El Paso. Messages left for her were not returned.
"My dad always worries about him," Greg Haren says. "And we'd like to at least know where he's at."
Before today's battle begins — before Germ will split his lip — an ominous black school bus pulls into the parking lot here at Jack Brooks Park in Hitchcock.
With blacked-out passenger windows and a skull dangling from the rearview mirror, the bus looks like it belongs to the Bowels of Hell Independent School District. As soon as it stops, the front and rear doors fly open and a band of black-clad figures pour out. They are Corpus Monstrom, one of Amtgard's many fighting companies — fraternal organizations that stick together on the battlefield. (Or, as one of the Monstroms likes to say, "We're not a fighting company, we're a family.)
Corpus Monstrom consists mostly of current and former peace officers and military men. And it's at least 62 pounds lighter than when it formed nine years ago — that's how much weight Monstrom honcho Nomada Demonicus Non ConCeedo dropped after his first year.
Nomada (a.k.a. Damon Jackson) took to Amtgard almost instinctually.
"It's genetic," he says, adding later that games like Amtgard were borne out of "hundreds of years of no outlet for warrior culture in this world."
So Jackson and his companions travel from park to park in the vessel they've named the Big Black Bitch, ready to get their warrior on.
While they prepare, a knight-in-training-slash-property-manager named Dughan ambles around the parking lot, plucking a mandolin. Well over six feet, with long, rust-colored hair and a sideburn-mustache combo like Lemmy from Motörhead, Dughan might make for an imposing figure if he weren't in fact playing a teeny-tiny guitar, and if he weren't in fact a supremely nice individual.
Dughan, a.k.a. Brian Dean of Spring, has been in Amtgard for 11 years. An early interest in medieval history, and medieval warfare specifically, led him when he was 19 to the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval reenactment group that fights with real armor and real weapons. At a gaming convention a few years later, he heard about Amtgard, and when he showed up for his first battle, it was like walking into an extended family.
Like just about everyone out here, Dean finds Amtgard to be first and foremost a great workout — a fun way to just let go and relieve stress by whupping ass in a safe, friendly environment. It also gives him a musical outlet; when he's not swinging his sword, he can be found on the sideline, jamming with a drummer or a dude on a lute.
Lately, Dean's been excited about his upcoming knighthood. He's been a squire (knight-in-training) to Misteslaus Harlstonovich, a.k.a. Stephen Duncan, an Oriental Orthodox priest and fellow musician. It's Duncan's job to forge Dean into the best Amtgarder he can be — make him a leader who will be a credit to this fantasy universe. Squires are knighted in different disciplines, and Dean is shooting to be a Knight of the Serpent, a person who has excelled in Amtgard's more artistic aspects, such as music, wardrobe and acting. Knighting ceremonies typically take place at major gatherings, amid much celebration and libation. The squire drops to one knee within a circle of knights, who pass a cup and say a few words about the man or woman of the hour.
It's a huge honor, and it's something serious Amtgarders don't forget — like Finoghaal, a.k.a. Penelope McFadin of Nassau Bay, who in 1998 became a Knight of the Flame for outstanding service to the kingdom. She got a late start today and doesn't show up until after the battle has begun.
McFadin, a City of Houston employee, is old school. She joined Amtgard in the early '90s, when the Kingdom of the Wetlands had a chapter that met in Hermann Park. The chapter got its name from the place where they met at the park — the obelisk by the reflecting pool. They called themselves the Barony of Granite Spyre. (Ultimately, parking proved to be a problem, so the group moved to Memorial Park.)
An early lover of sci-fi/fantasy books, McFadin got into tabletop role-playing games in high school, and eventually joined the Society for Creative Anachronism. But lumbering around in heavy armor soon got to be too much for her, so she figured she'd take a break. That's when she saw an Amtgard demonstration at a sci-fi convention in Austin and thought she'd give it a shot. She was an instant fan.
Unlike the SCA, she says, Amtgarders "weren't so obsessed with the practice, practice, practice all the time...you would just go out, and you had fun."
McFadin can be found on the battlefield, but she really enjoys specialized battle games, like quests, which tend to involve more strategy than fighting. As McFadin puts it, "it's something other than just beating on people with sticks."
After a few years in Amtgard, McFadin became royalty. Amtgard elections are held every May and December, and McFadin won the queen's throne in December 1999. Kings and Queens hand out awards, make sure everyone's following the rules and, in a more mundane role, act as the heads of the board of directors for the kingdom, or, as the Internal Revenue Service would call it, a 501(c)3. (Each kingdom operates as a nonprofit corporate grantee under Amtgard, Inc., Kingdom of the Burning Lands.)
McFadin learned that campaigning can be brutal. Amtgard is not immune to political mud-slinging, both within and between kingdoms, nor is it immune to the occasional person who takes things way too seriously. And some believe it's grown worse in recent years.
Amtgard historian Michael Lynch says he's on "hiatus" because of political in-fighting. He says the Kingdom of the Wetlands (Houston) liked to add little things here and there that weren't covered in the rulebook, which earned the ire of the Kingdom of the Burning Lands (El Paso), which claims copyright control over Amtgard.
"Legalities aside, the Kingdom of the Wetlands wanted to do what it wanted to have fun," Lynch says. "The Kingdom of the Burning Lands wanted everybody to conform to [its] idea of what was right."
This resulted in the Burning Lands declaring the Wetlands a nonentity, which hasn't seemed to have much effect locally.
Lynch says, "The people that founded — and were early leaders — in this kingdom...they're true Texans, in the independent, 'we are what we are and you can't change us' sort of Texas way."
As distasteful as such bickering might be, Lynch still credits Amtgard with making him a better person.
"When I first joined Amtgard, I was about as immature of an 18- or 19-year-old as there is — which is funny, because I was 21 when I joined," he says. "I was afraid to even look a girl in the face, you know; I couldn't deal with conflict. Violence terrified me — I mean, I was a wreck of a human being."
Through his Amtgard persona — a Hobbit-like creature named Snicker Furfoot —he found his resolve.
"Michael was this shy little nerdy kid, but Snicker was this powerful, recognized...respected person," he says.
Lynch adheres to what many Amtgarders call "The Dream" — an ideal version of the real world that, theoretically, could be attained in a fictitious world. The Dream is having fun, respecting others, fighting fairly and just generally avoiding the B.S. that the real world can deliver by the truckload.
"There are those who are...not interested so much in the dream as just getting out there and swinging a stick of foam and being 'the best,' whatever that is," Lynch says. "Amtgard is like any other social organization...you can't dip a toe in the Boy Scouts or the Parent-Teacher Association or the Lions Club or Scientology without finding this exact same stuff."
In 2006, some 30 years after live-action role-playing games started popping up, they got their first real mainstream (sort of) exposure.
That's the year Darkon, a documentary about Amtgard's D.C.-area forebear, was released. It won the South by Southwest Film Festival's Audience Award and earned mostly positive reviews. For many, it was their first glimpse into the world of LARPs, and while some viewers may have left the theater laughing, filmmakers Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer weren't driven by kitsch or mockery.
"We were interested in the notion of role-playing and the Shakespearean notion that, you know, 'Life is but a stage,'" Neel says from the duo's Brooklyn studio. "Another [theme] we were interested in was...raging against modern living and suburban life and office jobs and the increasingly homogenized world in which we live."
Neel believes that, while the film had "immediate hipster appeal," he and Meyer hoped the Converse Cognoscenti might view it in a non-ironic way.
"We treated them like human beings," Neel says of the Darkon players the film featured. "I think a lot of times, it's very easy to boil down their activity into some kind of ridiculous waste of time, or, you know, delusional fantasy world because they don't enjoy their own lives or something like that, which is just a very limited way of looking at it."
Neel puts it this way: "Darkon, to one extent or another, is an attempt to...combat, you know, the ennui that people experience in their day-to-day lives."
Ennui or not, mechanic Kevin McCall appreciates the heck out of the fact that he doesn't have to deal with a single engine when he's out on the battlefield. He can leave that behind when he's Silvertip, King of the Wetlands.
The name refers to his gray hair, a nod to the fact that he's 42 and still able to wipe the battlefield with fighters half his age. Amtgard, he says, reverses the aging process.
McCall's foray into the arts-and-science aspect of Amtgard has been to make his own medieval beer, Silverbrew, which, at 30 proof, is a potent and quick way to unwind after running around the park. McCall came to Amtgard six years ago via the Society for Creative Anachronism, and he's a proactive king — trying to arrange more battles between the Houston and DFW kingdoms, and just generally promoting his kingdom online and at events.
On the battlefield, sporting wraparound shades and a diamond earring, he delights in the chance to take on the Corpus Monstrom fighters, at least one of whom is running around with a 14-foot foam-headed spear. Another Monstrom is running around with a bad case of sexism.
During one skirmish, a Monstrom comes within striking distance of 23-year-old Limbo, a.k.a. Megan Perrin of La Marque, only to lean in and say, "I don't kill women." Shortly after laughing her ass off, she tells a teammate, who says — loud enough for most on the field to hear — "Being sexist in this is just going to get you killed by a girl."
By now, Germ is back in the fray, darting around like the Tasmanian Devil, busted lip be damned. It's nothing compared to that one battle where he hyperextended his knee and saw it swell to the size of a cantaloupe.
Today's battle is a ditch-fight, a sort of informal scrimmage where the players line up on opposite sides of the field and charge each other at once. For the most part, they collide in a cluster of flailing swords and flying shields. Each skirmish is over in less than a minute. But it's an intense, exhilarating minute, repeated over several hours. Walking back to his line after one such skirmish, over the smack-talk and vows of vengeance, a voice rises above the mix. It's Silvertip, King of the Wetlands.
"You know what's cool about this?" he says to no one in particular. "We all go back to our starting points and do it again."