In a park on the outskirts of Baltimore, a group of spectators gathered to cheer on friends, parents and significant others. Fans kneeled along the sides of a grassy field, while a few people lounged in fold-out chairs perched under trees.
The scene was set for any soccer, lacrosse or baseball game. But instead of shortstops and center-fielders, they cheered for wizards and warlords.
It’s called Live-Action Role Playing, or LARPing, where players dress up as fantasy characters and fight one another with foam weapons.
Movies like “Role Models” and “Knights of Badassdom” have caused LARPing to gain more notoriety, but because of the mainstream portrayal of role-playing games, the title of “LARPer” usually comes with a stigma.
“I think in a satirical way they touch on what this is, but you’re not going to get accuracy out of a raunchy comedy,” Gerard McNeal, longtime LARPer, said of movies like “Role Models.”
McNeal, 43, is the former president of Darkon Wargaming, one of the largest LARPing clubs in the country.
In LARP, players battle one another using fake foam swords and other hand-made weapons. They are also encouraged to create a character, whose persona a LARPer adopts while they play. Characters have elaborate background stories that include alternate skills, family lives, religions and relationships.
Players are often accused of using the game as an unhealthy escape from their real lives, but most participants hold steady jobs and have social lives outside of the game, McNeal said.
“People view it as an escapist thing, that it’s not just a fun activity you can do like a videogame,” he said.
Twice a month, Darkon attracts a crowd of a hundred or more to park grounds throughout the Maryland area. It’s not only the most consistently attended LARP clubs, it’s also one of the most inclusive, according to Alynna Lunaris, aka “Foxglove.”
Lunaris, 45, finalized her transition to become a woman nearly 15 years ago, and since then has never found a more welcoming community, she said.
“I have not seen this type of acceptance in almost any other community, so I do think it’s quite unique,” she said.
Lunaris even got married surrounded by her Darkon friends. In May, Lunaris tied the knot with Christina, aka “Bunny,” her partner of nearly four years.
In Darkon, there are no stigmas, she said.
“It’s actually really nice to say and very unusual to say, that there is no transgender community [in Darkon]”,” Alynna Lunaris said. “There is no difference. In the group I’m one of the people, one of the girls.”
And although the character names and weapons are fake, LARPing had some real life lessons to pass on to its players, according to Ianje Castellanos and Sev Gedra, two Darkon fighters.
Castellanos, aka “Fyxe,” was a shy bookworm before she started LARPing at Darkon, she said.
“It just gave me something that I could excel at for the first time in my life,” she said. “I was one of those closeted nerd kids, always behind like a computer, reading a book kind of thing.”
But LARPing, and Darkon specifically, made her learn to make her voice heard, she said. Gedra, who goes by just “Sev” in the game, agreed.
“Some people have louder voices than others, so if you want your voice heard, making it heard is important,” Gedra said. That lesson has helped her not only with wargaming, but also in the business world, where she is a costume maker, special-effects makeup artist and welder, she said.
For Gedra and Castellanos, Darkon is a place where their imaginations and strong personalities can thrive. And dressing up in costumes gives LARPing the extra bit of “flair” they like.
“Why the fuck not?” Castellanos said. “It’s what I want to be.”
Produced by Jacquie Lee and Ford Fischer
Production Assistant Dominick Mortarotti