This week, Profound Decisions bravely hosted a game of Empire LARPing. I say bravely, because it takes courage to arrange a three day pitched battle in a field in March, with a hurricane allegedly sweeping in across the Atlantic.
Enough LARPing enthusiasts gathered to create a tent city, divided into two quarters by a literal river of mud. Like the very River Styx, a moat eight feet deep, half full of water and walled with thorned hedges, separated two worlds: On one side, the OC, or “Out of Character” quarter of bright nylon tents, cars and camper vans; on the other, thoroughly hedged-off, the IC, or “In Character” quarter, a medieval tent city fit to besiege a castle. Lacking a castle in the vicinity, the most enthusiastic assembled to besiege the local woodland instead. More on this anon.
“In the IC” or “in the OC” became immediate jargon to explain where any one of our brave squad might be heading or soon to be found. The O/C Squad numbered Maddy, Len, Tash, Sam (your brave reporter himself), and our brave leader, Nick. In I/C, we were the Crimson Reaper Cartel; Aurora, Tolliver, Talia, Nathrach, and Prince Drogon: One undead sociopath, one self-avowed “Master Delusionist”/professional liar, one apparently naïve elven noblewoman, one sword-wielding maniac, and an undead prince recently resigned from leadership of a powerful faction to start a cutthroat band.
IC and OC, the politics of the Empire largely eluded us. Almost immediately, Prince Drogon departed to visit his old faction , the Ashen Tower, to negotiate his release from the death-vow of their brotherhood and pass on his royal titles to a new successor.
OC, all we really knew in advance was that the good Prince’s new Crimson Cartel were, on balance, not nice people at all. IC, the allegedly good Prince showed his comrades a map, and revealed that the empire was besieged on three fronts. He explained that failure to control piracy at sea had provoked an invasion on a fourth front: A fleet of Grendel warships had disgorged a ravening legion of orcs upon Imperial shores. Said orcish invasion was the occasion of the battles planned for the second and third days of the event. No more we knew.
By hindsight, warm and dry again at home, with tea on tap and pizza near to hand, Prince Drogon and his Cartel were akin to Blackadder assembling the Seven Most Evil Men In The Land… Early in our misadventures, the Prince recruited another conspirator, which still left us one one Evil Man short. Not long thereafter, the first gruesome murder was done. But not by us. While the evil Cartel were at their evil work, a band even more evil snuck into the woodland camp of the Nevar Nation, and brutally stabbed up the wife of the Nevari high chief. Nathrach and “#6” hurried to the scene of the crime, and came upon the Nevari conducting a séance to learn the assassins’ identities from the murdered queen’s ghost. Seriously, her character was dead. They caught her alone in camp and ganked her six to one with foam daggers. She had to lie there being dead until someone found her, then lie there some more while they figured out she was dead IC, keep lying there while they found a wizard, then do the whole “woo, I’m a ghost, they murdered me!” (she did it way better than that), then go down to the admin tents to get a new character… Her IC husband had to do the whole grieving thing, they’re not allowed to be married IC anymore, the whole Nevari tribe are on the warpath…
We never heard any more about it, frankly. The Nevari live in the woods and they don’t have any money; the Crimson Cartel turned out to have no business with them, and our bold scouting mission among the fierce Nevari, even into their mourning rituals, booted no further adventures for Nathrach and Evil Man #6. OC, I thought it was rather cool. This intrepid reporter snuck in and out of a forest séance by moonlight, toting a greatsword and accompanied by an armoured mercenary I’d met about ten minutes previously.
Back at Crimson Cartel HQ (a bell-tent we had rented for the weekend), intense discussion of money ensued. The Cartel was not short of IC cash, and we immediately pooled our resources. The Prince required certain funds, but Tolliver, the Master Delusionist, attempted to convince the band to elect him treasurer. At length, the Pirate Rule was applied, the Prince departing with half their shared wealth in gold, while his evil crew divided the silver between them.
Within five minutes, the Master Delusionist attempted to give his entire wallet to the first tavernier they met. Fortunately, Nathrach was there to intervene and the barman an honest fellow: Tolliver volunteered his purse to Nathrach’s keeping, and the evening proceeded. Proclaiming himself a master alchemist, the great Tolliver demonstrated his incredible Potion of All Purposes.
This mystic brew, he averred, granted any man who drank of it confidence, courage, superhuman strength, silver-tongued wit and even invisibility. Shortly thereafter, he vanished beneath the table, and was seen no more that night.
The next morning, an almost football match element of LARPing was revealed to me: The gathered warriors split into two teams. One side continued to play in their characters, risking their IC lives on the field, while the other side donned latex masks and battered plastic armour to play the orcish legion of Grendel. Tomorrow, the sides would switch, like teams changing ends at half time, and the heroes of yesterday would mask-up and go orcing.
On day one, I and the squad added orc-masks to our costumes, and joined the greenskinned invaders. Those playing heroes IC took a real risk with their characters; while they each had many Hit Points and healing magic, dead was dead. As orcs, death in battle earned only a time-out and redeployment. For slain heroes, there was only the sad wait in line to see G.O.D, the Games Operation Desk and roll up new protagonists.
Yours truly is, quite frankly, well schooled in the way of the two-handed sword and strode out confidently to prove it upon the muddy field against all who dared my reach.
The orcs assembled and were divided into units. Orc chiefs divided us into mobs, bellowed out half a dozen basic commands for simple formation fighting, and picked out the bravest self-proclaimed berzorcers to form into commando squads. By happy fortune, I found myself volunteered along with my comrade of last night, the mysterious #6, for what became The O-Team: Murdorc, Cannibal, Human-Face, and your brave reporter, BA Berzorkus. Seriously, I could not make this up.
We set out into the woods, half a dozen trudging columns of orcs spacing out to “camp” among the trees. The military verisimilitude truly began with a period of “Hurry up and Wait”. The O-Team and those near us, in true orc style, staged a Circle of Treachery, standing in a loose ring and hewing merrily at one another by surprise. Berzorkus stood back, leaning upon his sword, not wishing to dishearten his fellow braves by lathering the lot of them. No, really.
Then one orc, armed with sword and buckler, set upon him. Berzorkus swept his sword on guard, holding his foe at the full length of the blade. Confronted with five foot of greatsword at his throat, the brave orc hesitated; the criss-cross circling of sword and buckler ceased, and he went crosseyed within his mask. Berzorkus slashed out his throat, stuck sword and shield aside and smote him again in the kidneys, then turned to face another foe who came immediately on.
Dropping to a low stance, Berzorkus twitched his sword behind him, this time hiding the length of his blade. The second foe plunged in from the high guard, sword and axe in either hand. Berzorkus’ blade flashed up, parried twice and struck twice again in a flurry, laying open his opponent’s ribs and throat. Two more followed, no less swiftly struck down.
Then the mighty Murdorc challenged him, and they exchanged blows, hewing two-handed with greatsword and cleaver. Petty wounds were dealt and received in turn, but Berzorkus fell back apace before Murdorc’s onset: His foot struck upon a tree-root, and Murdorc dealt him a decisive blow to the side.
In the remaining minutes, we sat under a tree OC, peeled off our masks, smoked cigarettes and passed around a water bottle. Then smoke was seen through the trees, and a horn heard in the distance. Masks went back on and the orcs assembled; the humans were advancing. Within sight of Berzorkus formed three shieldwalls, lines of orcish pikemen defended by shield-bearers. The O-Team moved out to skirmish in the gaps between the nearest two lines of shields, using the woodland as cover from enemy archers.
The humans advanced in columns, led by fully-armoured knights with sword and shield, pikemen in the second rank, men with maces and hammers following and archers skirmishing on their flanks.
Both sides manoeuvred, the lines shifting about approaches through the trees. At the first clash, the humans came through a narrow way, a causeway edged with deep mud and heavily wooded on either side. The orcish shieldwall closed to meet them, the humans led by a long-haired knight in pure white armour. Advancing from the human shieldwall, he stood against four pikemen and almost succeeded in breaking through the orcish line. But Berzorkus was in the second rank; as the shieldwall parted, his greatsword smote upon the knight’s shield, halting his advance. Another swordblow blow fell and the knight slipped in the mud, falling to one knee. Pikes and halberds rained upon him, the greatsword joined by axes and cleavers as the orcish line rallied. The knight made good use of his shield in his retreat; the orcs let him go, jeering in victory.
The lines of battle fell back and reformed on either hand, the human advance halted on every front and the orcs manoeuvring to maintain their advantage. Berzorkus and Murdorc took position again on the flanks, advancing under cover of the trees until they crouched within ten feet of the enemy. The humans had formed a loose redoubt, shield-bearers strung out in open order across the widest approaches and archers guarding the narrow ways. As Berzorkus and Murdorc crept closer, the main orcish forces began their advance. Spotting a human archer distracted, Berzorkus roared and charged. Alerted too late, the archer sought to flee; Berzorkus hewed her down with repeated blows. Roaring again, he turned to face another archer. This man at least managed to draw his sword; Berzorkus cut him down in turn, the red mist descending. He was through the enemy line now, behind their shieldwall, the archers scattering from his path. Then the white knight came against him again, striding suddenly from the human mob. Berzorkus attacked him without pause, forcing the knight at once to his own defence. But the human archers rallied, two of them falling on Berzorkus from either hand with their shortswords…
Fortunately, orcs are effectively immortal. Heroically cut down, I lay in the mud for the obligatory three minutes, then trudged off to the re-spawn point. Miraculously recovered, Berzorkus joined the orcish reinforcements marching to cut off the human retreat. Following the same tactic as before, Berzorkus joined the skirmishers on the orcish flanks. A human knight was attempting to co-ordinate the retreat, rather bravely risking his life to see their archers safely back behind a hastily re-forming shieldwall. Berzorkus sadly missed a chance at the knightly hero’s back, being delayed by sneaking through the undergrowth in the attempt. An archer presented the next best target in charging range: Berzorkus roared and set upon him.
This time, he roared too soon and saw too late that the archer wielded a crossbow: The lad (who wasn’t more than fifteen, poor kid), jumped in terror, whirled and shot me in the fricking face at close range. Bam, straight in the eyeball. Berzorkus swore like an enraged b@~*#& and advanced three more steps, raising his sword to do murder, before it registered, both IC and OC, that I’d just taken an arrow straight through the eye. In all good sportsmanship, I toppled and died, offering the brave young archer a thumbs-up from the floor while he was still apologising.
While I lay dead upon the field, two churlish knaves stood over my corpse and debated whether to loot my mighty greatsword. Fortunately, and by no chance whatsoever, I had it firmly trapped beneath me, and neither of them was inclined to risk rolling the demented Berzorkus over to steal his sword.
Respawned, I joined the orcs again for the final phase of battle. Orc chiefs marched among us, extolling us all to really get our orc on for a final effort. The humans, we were snarlingly assured, had been soundly battered six ways from Sunday, and all that remained was to choke their final retreat and crush them entirely. We duly rallied, the human shieldwalls crumbling before us; orders came to hold back. Gathering a mob to hold the final escape route, we sang orcish warsongs, bayed like mad puppies (edited) and beat the heck out of each other in orcy enthusiasm.
Scattered groups of humans began to flee, trying to sneak past us in the woodland. We hunted them down, six of us closing in upon a rather nicely armoured valkyrie and her excellently bearded Viking companion. Menaced on all sides by upraised orcish weapons, they surrendered and cowered together, the valkyrie bitterly complaining of their imminent murder and looting, and the aforesaid long march of shame to the mystic Tent Of Character Rolling. Just as our chief drew steel to murder them both, orders came down that the battle was won; we had made total slaughter of the foe, and they quit the field in bitter defeat.
I had barely seen my teammates during the battle; we caught up on the march back, grinning and recounting our deeds of butchery. Ditching our orcish wargear, we returned to the where the IC tent had once stood. What was there now was a pile of canvas. The darn (edited) thing had collapsed. We hadn’t set the blooming thing (edited again, honestly) up, and spent the next ten minutes hauling the pesky (really Mr Jones) thing back upright and pegging it down. Frick’s sake (OK, you can use Frick). Mutter, grumble, complain, cuss, etcetera. With the soon to be utterly hated tent temporarily secured, we set out upon a tour. Strolling around the tent-city, we visited bars and tradehouses, fought a friendly duel, and immersed ourselves in the game.
Then the rain began, and we retreated to the OC in the face of rising wind. Halfway along the dangerous mud-track between worlds, the heavens darkened. Night seemed to fall early and a wind arose. The deluge began, and we fled for the car, picking up a stray LARPer not of our company along the way. Six of us piled into car, our driver sitting in the boot. For two hours, the rain beat down without mercy. Fortunately, we had booze and food. As good a time as possible was had by all, until the rain stopped and we all dried off enough to venture forth.
That night, we attended a feast, of sorts, and more drink was had by all. The tent miraculously did not fall down, and we three lads slept in the IC while the girls withdrew to the relative safety of the OC tent near the car. Only Nathrach had the foresight to bring a sleeping bag. Prince Drogon and Tolliver the Delusionist were better friends by dawn, for want of warmth.
With dawn, the bold Prince bounded forth to further politicking while his gallant band fought a rearguard action against the Evil Tent Curse invoked by the unholy storm. Many other tents were struck down, the rain having temporarily abated only for the wind to redouble, the soggy archers in the clouds falling back to allow the gale to beset us like unseen cavalry. Storm! Storm, I tell you! Rain and gale and a gathering darkness as of the wrath of the gods! Mighty Thor, forgive us the brutal orcing of that valkyrie and her beardy Viking, it wasn’t me, I didn’t stab either of them… Alright, I did chop the Viking a bit, but then they surrendered and I thought it was all rather sweet, I swear…
Our prayers went unheeded; the evil wind cursed the OC tent too and we were forced to retreat again. The bold Prince found his heroic band huddled together in a half-collapsed nylon shelter, passing around cups of tea and cigarettes. Morale was fraying. Mutiny had been discussed. Pirate democracy was again invoked, and the team voted that a brilliant time was being had by all, but that we should stop now, while it was still fun. The prince bounded off to battle, while the rest of us packed up. Many other far more veteran and far better equipped LARPers were pulling out. In deference to the die-hards who joined arms in the field for the second round, the angry gods witheld their full fury to watch the day’s battle. The IC tent collapsed twice more anyway. We put it back up only to clear out our gear. Packed, we wandered the vanishing tent-village, admiring the full-time hard-corps orcs (who apparently take it really seriously) and the remaining best stalls. The Prince returned with glorious news; victory! Our side, this time the bold human heroes, had triumphed again. As orcs, we had inflicted horrific casualties; we had anticipated embittered reprisals and savage orcery, now their turn had come. Nonetheless, we gave them another thrashing, which cheered our spirits immensely.
The car failed to start. A likewise stranded blacksmith gave us cake. We waited an hour for the mechanic, but nonetheless managed to escape ahead of the returning fury of the storm.
For my first experience of LARPing… I’m already a vocal fan of camping and archaic melee combat. Both? Awesome. I fully intend on doing it again soon. But it’s jolly (edited) tiring. This weekend, I’ve marched through miles of mud, slept rough, drunk myself stupid, waded through melee, and been battered as if by the fury of a rainy demon-god. Everyone should do this regularly.
Samuel Z Jones is a prolific Fantasy author
with over fifteen novels and numerous other works to his name. He espouses a complex theory of worldbuilding, and maintains that fiction is an exercise in psychological portraiture of people who do not exist.