Doing battle in fantasy role play
By Lou Fancher
At 3:15 on a Wednesday afternoon at Ygnacio Valley High School the school day is over: it's time to whip out a handcrafted sword, don medieval armor, and annihilate the enemy using sorcery and brilliant boffer combat.
Mt. Diablo Unified School District tech engineer Earl Ogden's after-school Amtgard Club unleashes the formidable energy of an average California teenager in Live Action Role Play, otherwise known as LARP.
Re-enacting or creating original scenarios based on the culture, honor, rules, history and science of medieval and ancient combat, Amtgard was founded in El Paso, Texas, in 1983. With more than 10,000 active members worldwide -- many of them adults -- would-be monarchs, assassins, knights and warriors do battle with foam (boffer) weapons.
Unlike other LARPs, which are often based on established back stories from tabletop and video games, Amtgard allows participants to create original, fantastical scenarios. A "Circle of Monarchs" governs kingdoms sprinkled across the United States and around the world. An inch-thick book dictates acceptable "hit" locations, etiquette, armor and weapon construction, talismans and other magic tools, characters, and labyrinthine rules dictating scoring and engagement.
"I got into historically accurate fighting when I was at Humboldt State University, but fell out of it until my son, Marcus, got interested, but didn't like Dungeons and Dragons-based fighting," Ogden says. "Amtgard people found him (at an event) and the whole family got into it. It has fantasy, build-your-own gear, and the smack-each-other part."
Soon, Ogden and his wife, Katherine, were traveling every weekend with their two sons to join 2,000 or more participants in Sonora, Sacramento and other locations. In 2013, he established his own chapter, assuming the "Prime Minister" position and recruiting and leading 40 or so students in the art of combat.
Students learn blacksmithing, sewing, construction and combat skills. They make armor and weapons out of 50-gallon plastic drums, foam rollers, bamboo and other materials; fashion costumes that include tunics, capes and "wrap pants;" build shields and occasional structures; and learn archery, martial arts, fencing and defensive stances they maintain while moving up and down a field.
Judging at festivals is strict and demands complex, in-the-moment scorekeeping based on an honor system. ("Better to take a death than to have someone accuse you of 'schluffing,' the term for lying about a hit," says Ogden.) Hits to the head are forbidden, so participants spend considerable time on shot placement. Everything, even the fantastic plots Ogden devises for their battles, is steeped in medieval and ancient history.
Robin Crowe, 16, says keeping track of armor points is hard, but "the fighting is fun" and "without this, there'd be nothing to do but homework."
She's used her sewing skills to make costumes, lopped the head off carbon fiber golf clubs to make weapons, and made daggers out of light, but sturdy PVC.
On the blacktop at YVHS, she looks formidable as she rejoins the action. Jelani Sabir-Easter, 18, graduated from YVHS in 2014 and attends Diablo Valley College. He joined the club last year and said it was "my dream come true." Returning to participate, he recalls the fighting was originally harder than he anticipated.
"I'd seen fighting in movies, but you have to have stamina, control of the sword, and prepare to be hit. People hit really, really hard," he says.
But Sabir-Easter found a connection that sustained him and causes him to continue in the after-school program that's open to alumni.
"I found a way to connect because I could talk about medieval things and the Renaissance era. Everyone else was into it too," he says.
Ogden and his wife have largely been bankrolling the club's expenses. He bought an RV to take them to Sacramento for festival competitions.
"There're no resources in their families: many come from homes with single parents. Most of them would be playing video games if they weren't here," he says. "In PE classes, they won't participate, but here, they run around like mad. In English, they kibitz, but here, they work on a Reeves test that was 53 questions, all word or essay answers, about rules, chivalry and more. We had a 90 percent pass rate."
Perhaps nothing is more important than Ryan Thomas's participation.
At 17, Thomas recently lost his single-parent mother and is living with his grandmother. Planning to graduate next spring, attend college and become a paralegal, he says it's not corny to say that Amtgard is his family and having people who care if he shows up for practice is a primary source of comfort and social connection.
"If I wasn't here, I'd be on my computer watching videos," Thomas says. "I'm aggressive and if I didn't do this, I might get into real fights."
Instead, he's unofficially known as "the walking rule book" for his incredible retention of Amtgard's byzantine rules. Officially, Thomas is "Kreiger Hast," a German name meaning "the warrior who is asked."