Flesh for fantasy

Sacramento’s live action role-playing community levels up

Alisa K (left) and Morgan H. take a bite out of boring.

Alisa K (left) and Morgan H. take a bite out of boring.

photos by lisa baetz

Swords. Dragons. Vampires. Werewolves. Knights. Politics. Betrayal. Intrigue.

It may sound like just another week on Game of Thrones, but for some, the fantasy world isn't regulated to what happens on a screen.

In Sacramento, fantasy enthusiasts gather weekly—in the flesh, without the aid of a screen—to try on a new character, test their strength at arms or attempt to cast down their rivals on, or off, the field of battle.

Oh … and don't forget about leveling up. This is a game, after all.

The kind of game that brings a person's physical presence into a story. It's a dedication to a medium that isn't just about watching a screen or reading a book. It's LARPing.

LARP—or live action role-play, for the uninitiated—is similar to tabletop role-playing games (think Dungeons & Dragons), except with, yes, real life role-playing. Simply put, players interact while physically acting out the actions of their characters.

It's like a video game, but one in which the person's hands are actually the character's hands.

And Sacramento is no stranger to LARPing communities, knightly battles and vampiric plots going on weekly.

Halloween is over—and for most that means putting costumes away. For others, however, the dress-up and characters are year-round dedications to continually playing, world-building and epic adventures.

Sometimes to have fun, you have to escape into another world, another person.

‘It’s a game of finesse’

If someone were to trace the borders of the state of California on a map, they might not realize it, but they’d also be tracing the borders of the Kingdom of Westmarch. Westmarch is part of a worldwide fantasy game known as Amtgard, in which players compete and battle in a medieval game-world setting.

The dragons, and swords and shields, might not be real, but the combat is.

There are two main Amtgard groups in Sacramento; the Duchy of Thor’s Refuge and the Shire of Mistyvale.

“The amount of overlap we have here in Sacramento is unique,” said Marcus Bergman, the Regent of Thor’s Refuge. As a regent, he’s in charge of the arts and sciences for his kingdom. He’s also Westmarch Board of Director’s Treasurer. “Most communities don’t home two [LARP groups]. So, it’s rare to find two lands that close together.”

Bergman and his wife Teresa (a baronet of the Shire of Mistyvale) were introduced to Amtgard after their youngest son discovered it at a Rocky Horror Picture Show-themed event in 2008.

“We did it and we’re like, ’This is amazing, why doesn’t everyone know about this?’” Bergman said.

Two lines of people, some costumed, some not, wildly brandishing and swinging and hitting each other with what appears to be some type of sword-like weapon. What’s not to love?

And once Teresa learned she could hit Marcus with a foam bat, she was on board as well.

Rory F. (left) and Dave O. discuss game details.

Have no fear though, wary traveler. There’s no reason to be worried about losing life or limb. The weapons used in Amtgard are “boffer” weapons. They aren’t the sharp swords or realistic weapons of the days of old—rather, they’re padded to prevent injuries and players are taught the appropriate way to hit people.

It’s also not a battle royale of brute strength. Players must follow specific rules about just where on an opponent’s body they can hit.

“It’s a game of finesse, not power,” Bergman said. “There [are] people out there who if they just swung for the rafters every time they’ll win every fight, but that’s not the idea … it’s a lot of finesse, parrying and proper footwork and other things.”

The head, neck and throat, for example, are all off-limits.

Attending weekly battles and participating in other activities all net players points and levels, which can lead a person to knighthood. You can hold office in the game by showing off your skills. To that end, the Bergmans host a Wednesday night arts and sciences meeting at Great Escape Games, where players can learn how to sew costumes, make weapons or gain other skills needed to get more involved with the game.

Playing is free, and newcomers can go to a game and have the necessary weapons provided for them. While it may have its roots in swords and sorcery, Amtgard says it isn’t just about killing people.

“You build a community, it’s like a little village of people,” Teresa Bergman said. “You have the same problems as you do in the real world, only on a much smaller level. It’s just, everyone works harder to try to get along, everybody enjoys themselves so much.”

But even if it isn’t all about killing people, there’s still something to the physicality of it all.

“I like to get out on to the battlefield and just swing foam and have the cathartic release of killing everyone around me,” Marcus Bergman said.

The darkest nights

Knights and wizards may be some people’s fantasy cup of tea, but for others, LARPing needs a darker framework: A world that isn’t based on knights, but rather nights.

Enter World of Darkness, a parlor-style LARP that’s quite different from the heavy-hitting and medieval style world of Amtgard.

“[World of Darkness is] not as big into the actual action aspect, so there’s no physical hitting or anything like that. It’s all based on interpersonal interactions, and the role-play element in that regard,” said Kristen Estrada, a local game organizer.

Vampire: The Masquerade is one of the flagship games in the World of Darkness setting, which also includes options that focus on supernatural creatures including werewolves, changelings and mummies, and other various bloodsucking creatures of the night. Vampire is particularly big in Sacramento.

Locally, there are approximately 10 different groups in the area, with two main ones that get the most activity: the local chapters of the Mind’s Eye Society and One World By Night. OWBN meets on the second, fourth and fifth Saturday of the month at Sacramento State. MES runs each of its different games once a month, moving between the second Friday, fourth Friday and fourth Saturday.

Both organizations are also worldwide, meaning that characters and players can interact across the game world—at least digitally through email—and interact with games and settings across the globe.

Unlike many of the other options, Vampire is more about long-term world building—some players have been building their stories for the past 15-20 years—and the more subtle, interpersonal politics of characters interacting. The “combat” here is resolved with rock, paper, scissors—similar to dice rolls in tabletop games, not actually hitting an opposing player.

And who would want to hit somebody when they could nest inside their mind and really do some damage, anyways? Just because its players aren’t as focused on the physical aspects of LARPing, that’s not to say that they can’t display abilities that are superhuman in nature. Depending which clans a player picks, he or she can access disciplines such as superspeed, superstrength, stealth powers and even the ability to morph into animals.

“If there’s an enhanced thing you can think of, then vampires probably have some kind of access to it, depending on their clan,” Estrada said. “Superpowers, basically.”

But, ultimately, it’s the connections with people, and the community that is built, that keep players, both of Amtgard and World of Darkness, coming back, game after game, year after year, building relationships and characters together.

“I think what I enjoy is kind of the consistency of seeing people,” Estrada said. “I’ve made a lot of friends over the last several years, [I like] going someplace and knowing you have something in common with the people there … even if you have nothing else in common with them.”