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.
"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.
"The performers are of course playing themselves, but at the same time they're playing an imaginary construct influenced by characters, scenes, and situations found throughout popular culture," says Kurt Lancaster, professor at Colorado's Fort Lewis College and author of two books on "imaginary entertainment environments," in an e-mail interview. "Just as a reader depicts imaginary situations when they're reading a novel, role-players are visualizing through the imagination the fantasy setting."
Mr. Lancaster believes no other form of entertainment immerses an individual so deeply into an imaginary world. "At its best, [LARPing] is collective storytelling," he writes. "You can have deeply humanistic transformative experiences in role-playing games, just as you do when exposed to good literature."
Back in the forest, Wolf is bent on vanquishing the bands of marauders threatening our town. "Bandits are definitely on my list of things to do today," he exclaims. "LARPs get a lot of bad spin," admits player Lauren Massengill. "It's not merited. It teaches leadership and social skills. I've seen shy people who, after a few games, became leaders."
Within the first hour of play, I watched an inarticulate young man blossom into an English-accented, chivalrous knight.
By Day 2, I was getting the hang of this new world. I had witnessed a battle between nasty, half-humanoid, half-plant mandrakes (in green costumes) and 20 defenders. I watched a goblin throw fireballs (little cloth bundles) and saw a fairy named Dusk Whisper ("Triage Healer") patch up the wounded fighters.
We were beginning to bond.
But adventure had still eluded me. Until, that is, an armored knight stumbled into the tavern. "I have a quest," he said. "I seek the most beautiful thing."
What the heck. I tagged along with a quickly assembled fellowship. After a short walk, we came to a dungeon whose door was bound by four different colored ribbons: red, yellow, black, and white – and a riddle: "Sought by those of wicked arts, hidden within loathsome hearts."
Pull the wrong ribbon and who knew what would happen. We guessed "black" might be the answer and yanked the corresponding ribbon. The door opened and we entered the cave unscathed. Ahead stood a frozen statue in the gloom. If we didn't answer the second clue correctly, it would attack. We guessed all three riddles, and brought back the booty: something called the Idol of Forbidden Knowledge. Uh-oh.
That night, the moon rose like a Viking ship on a sea of clouds. I didn't sleep well. When a black-shrouded spirit wandered past my bunk, wielding a white sword, I couldn't tell if it was real or a dream.
By weekend's end, even a man of peace such as myself could appreciate the rush of battle. But what had ultimately made the LARP alluring was not the play violence, but the camaraderie.
It was Sunday morning. Saphrin, from the Arabian-like Desert of Brass kingdom, complained to Magnus, a bull-headed warrior, about how to best rule their town.
"Your world extends no farther than the end of your sword," Magnus said to the gathered crowd.
"What is needed is two councils," Saphrin said, arguing for a plan. "A council of war, and one for domestic matters."
Nothing was resolved. The story would have to be continued at another weekend.
Chris Jones, who is in a seminary, will likely be at a future event to reprise his roles as both Magnus and Leif Thorsson. He credits his wife, Rachel, for drawing him into LARPs. "She's the reason I do this," he says. "She wanted to be a fairy."
As for me, Ethor, I began to miss the quieter moments, like comparing made-up worlds with a pointy-eared goblin named Heinrich. Completely in character, I described mine, dotted with alabaster fortresses. He told me of his, a subterranean Goblin City with belching factories straight out of Dickens.
I hoped Heinrich would stay. He seemed happier in the Forest of Doors than back home – wherever that was.