Fighting goblins and ogres in a Georgia park
It's Saturday night. I'm in the tavern, feasting on roasted meat and potatoes, and listening to Leif, one of three boisterous Thorsson brothers, describe how he attacked a troll in the forest earlier in the day. Merriment abounds.Skip to next paragraph
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"We are the Thorsson Brothers!" they shout in unison, banging their swords – clank, clank, clank! – on the table. "Huhh!"
You never know who you'll meet at the local watering hole in the Forest of Doors, both an imaginary place and the name of a weekend-long live action role-playing game, or LARP, taking place at a Georgia state park campground.
A LARP is like a hybrid between Dungeons & Dragons and playing make believe. But "tabletop" role-playing games like D&D exist largely in the imagination. Player actions are described verbally, as in, "My character will strike the goblin." LARPs take the fantasy a step beyond. You create a character, invent a back story, dress the part, and physically wander around a real setting, looking for adventure.
The men and women who play these games – students, waitresses, salesmen, lab researchers -– say the ephemeral heroism, random interaction with each other, and fantasy violence on a sprawling, amorphous stage are LARPs' primary allure.
"We're one step removed from community theater," says Forest of Doors ringleader Christopher Tang upon my arrival. "If you want to have a good time at LARPs, you need to have a little self-direction."
Mr. Tang, a real estate lawyer, is one of a team of staff members who dream up the adventures, puzzles, and monsters that players can encounter during the game. No matter what the LARP genre – espionage, historical reenactment, science fiction, swords and sorcery – the concept is the same. There is no script. The better an improv actor you are, the more fun you'll have. And, in the Forest of Doors, if you want to kill a "terrorbeak" (an "extra" wearing black and a bird mask), unsheathe your foam and PVC pipe "boffer" weapon and whack away until it keels over with a shriek and "dies."
There are hundreds of LARP groups worldwide. The largest, such as England's Lorien Trust, can draw as many as a thousand players. Forest of Doors is much smaller. In late March, Tang's group rented a campsite at Indian Springs State Park, about an hour southeast of Atlanta, for their weekend game. Players pretended the lawns and ramshackle collection of wooden cabins scattered in a pine wood were ruins, caverns, and battlefields.
"We understand these things aren't real. But that is the value in it. We are part of this shared ritual," says Charles Kelley, one of the game directors, who calls LARPs a form of "secular ritualism."
My first evening, the place reminded me of summer camp. Backpack slung over my shoulders, the weight of my hesitations felt even heavier. I was to play the role of Ethor, a humble monk from the Realm of Castles. I'm reserved, learned, a man of the cloth. I avoid violence. Nonetheless, I was handed a mace upon my arrival. While donning a blue monk's tunic, I looked around at the other residents: about 40 other bantering barbarians, snickering goblins, giggling fairies, and nodding sages. We'd all have to stay in character for two days.
I wanted to go home.
Yet home was far away. In the Forest of Doors, characters from eight Homeworlds – places such as the Dark Mountains, Empire of Perfect Unity, and Enchanted Glade – have supposedly passed through magical doors, à la Narnia, to appear in this "place of infinite secrets." They don't know how to get back.
But the 239-page rule book promises, "you may forge a new destiny for yourself." Hence the appeal of the game: The freedom to be someone else.
Nick Perretta, who works in network TV sales when not playing a warrior character called Wolf, says the game gives him a chance to inhabit a crude and outspoken character. "Drama is wonderful," he says. "I don't do what anyone wants."
Talk about a weekend getaway.