Axe and shield in hand, the level-two Asgard defender has finally met his match—a level-six Cimmerian warrior boasting a foam-sealed sword and a cotton-tailored armor. The populated school campus witness the violent exchange as the Cimmerian loudly charges with his long-handed sword. The defender readies his shield whose principal materials is cartoon cardboard and duct tapes. In a moment of hesitation, the Asgard defender dodges the attack and lithely swoops behind the Cimmerian as he buries the blade of his axe into the tendons of his right leg, rendering him defenseless. As he raised his weapon to strike the final blow, the defender hears a disembodied voice chanting a Nemedian spell. He instantly recognizes that there is a mage nearby; she is about to heal her fallen comrade.
“Hey, Clayton, you want a donut roll?” someone shouts from a small plot of grass where a plethora of weapons, shields, schoolbags, and winter jackets lay haphazardly. Clayton, the fallen Cimmerian, now spurs to life seemingly without the aid of a reviving magic, and replies with a sonorous “yeah!”
This is the world of LARPing (or Live Action Role-Playing game), where PVC pipes and pixie bags become legendary swords and soul-crushing spells, and where race and reputation are gauged with meritocracy, and backyard pastures and wooded areas transform to divided kingdoms and dark woods. It is a world whose players supplies much of its oracle and enlivens it with their imaginations, rules, symbolism, and theatrical improvisations, until the next bathroom break demands an urgent retreat to reality.
“[A LARPer] is a character in a living theater event,” Tim Remington explains, the plot master of Westmark, one of the few LARPing groups situated in Northwest Arkansas. “There is a lot of theatrics in LARPing . . . you go to the story and you do the story, but we are very clear it is just a story.”
Remington has been writing these quest stories, or “modules” as they are called in LARP, for more than ten years, and each of them is not only “convoluted and detailed” but rapidly expanding as Westmark continues to accept more people as in-game characters.
A Journey Uninterrupted
The Asgard defender is Justin West, 20, one of the newcomers to the Westmark group. His roommate and fellow LARPer, Rudy Rudisill, 20, convinced him to join last September after he himself had dappled into it a month before.
“I remember last year —my sophomore year— that I kept seeing people playing out there [outside Arkansas Union at the University of Arkansas]” West said, “and I was like ‘You know, what? I’m going out there and go fight.’”
After the two met each other last year as dorm neighbors, Rudisill and West took over a Nerf group in the dorm –a game in which players play against each other with dart guns whose ammunition is made from foam– which, after they “brought it back, gave it new rules, and helped it live,” they quickly became friends and roommates and now living together at Duncan Avenue Apartments.
But West’s introduction wasn’t driven by mere curiosity; he has been role-playing since he was a teenager in Paragould, Ark, his hometown. “As a child, me and my [younger] brother would often go out to the pasture and play around and just basically go off to our own little world,” West says. “We weren’t playing as each other but someone else . . . difference races.”
The kind of races that West refers to is similar to the ones found in medieval fantasy novels and young adult fiction like the Ranger’s Apprentice or Lord of the Rings (i.e. dwarfs, elves, faeries, dryads, hobbits, orcs, etc.) Both West and his brother used to consume many novels, movies, and video games that are based on fantasy settings. In other words, fantasy was simply a reoccurring motif in West’s upbringing.
“And so when we went out in our backyards, about two acres down the creeks toward the woods, we carried our specific sticks that we picked out as our weapons and, just like in LARP, we fought each other . . . or with each other against nothing at all,” he says.
For Rudisill, on the other hand, it was the fact that he was raised in the “military town” of Cabot, Ark., whose proximity to Cabot National Guard, Little Rock Air Force Base, and Jacksonville Museum of Military History, that had galvanized him into playing war games and airsoft, a recreational game whose participants shoot plastic BBs via replica firearms.
Thus, when it came to the creative camouflaging that LARP demands, Rudisill felt immediately intrigued and conversant. “It’s still new but I completely understood the concept,” he said.
Rudisill’s character in Westmark is thus loosely inspired by his “military” background—a level two, Katana-wielding Lumerian warrior whose first module was to assume the militaristic duties of a city guard.
A Mythology Undiminished
When West and Rudisill joined Westmark, they were both entrusted with Westmark’s game guide—an exhaustive, 90-page manual that structurally explains the rules of the game, its mechanics, and its ongoing mythology, which is heavily borrowed from Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s Dungeons & Dragons.
“Our game book is written by the players for the players,” Remington says “It is the group members who actually decide what mechanics we should be using.”
As West and Rudisill are fence-practicing outside Arkansas Union of UA, the former assaults his fellow member with a constant barrage of four-hit strikes; it is an axe skill that he has liberally chosen when he reached level two, which is one of the many unique perks that results from Westmark’s flexible tethering to its game rules.
“We are a community,” Daniel Wonsower says, 19, one of the veteran members of Westmark whose character is a level six Aquilonain. “It’s not just run by Tim; it’s run by all the players as a group whole.”
Once a year, all Westmark members convene in Remington’s house to discuss the manual and make suggestions that would enhance or fix the experience of playing the game.
“Our goal is always to make a better game,” Remington says. “When we change the rules we look for things that would make more sense like . . . weapon smiths should be able to repair armor faster than non-weapon smiths.”
One member flaunts his veterancy to a newcomer in how his six-months training period as a Dwarven blacksmith has made his custom-made weapons sturdy. The newcomer challenges the assertion by repeatedly hitting a tree with one of his swords. The weapon doesn’t yield to breakage.
Another unbroken aspect is the cooperative thinking that extends to the construction of the game’s mythology and modules.
“The longer we stay in the game and the more new people come in, you get elevated to a level where Tim looks at you and say ‘You have to help me make a module,’” West says.
“Every six months, our game master, Tim, has a helper to write a co-plot,” Wonsower adds, “and whenever you are on co-plot, you would write your own module—a nice, big grand module that would actually change the shape of the [game] world.”
“I’d like to have the chance to play more as a player,” Remington says. “The game, however, always works better with me being on plot.”
Indeed, the fact that Remington is seen as a game master and one of its principle creators has entitled him overarching duties that include “writing the game, managing the in-field game, managing the paper work, which is an administrative job, and managing the facility management of the game—getting the food, getting the custom, getting the sleeping tents.”
Another obliging aspect of Westmark’s membership is that the players must participate in is performing the roles of non-playable players (or NPCs) and the enemies that inhibit the game world.
“I have played a bunch [of NPCs],” Clayton Cantrell says, 19, one of the veterans and currently Westmark’s highest-level character. “The longer you play, Tim would get you bigger roles; he would even sent you out on your own.”
And when it comes to portraying those bigger enemies and bosses, the number of participating players also increases. A familiar example would be “a big dragon like the stuff you see on fantasy setting,” according to Cantrell, which often includes “five, six people” in that each represents a bodily organ of the dragon (i.e. head, tail, two wings, two claws.)
Thus, considering the size and number of the enemies and the game’s increasing population, Westmark requires a sizable space to encompass all of its activities, which is openly provided by Cantrell’s family farm at Devil’s Den on Highway 170.
“We got 180 acres but we LARP only about 30,” Cantrell says in reference to his family farm, which hosts a 60×80 wooden village that comprises of “one actual built wall and three theoretical walls.”
Cantrell’s farm is also where the “live action” aspect of LARP takes place. “Our place is a pasture but half of it is heavily wooded,” he says
Westmark performs its live action quest once a month for three days with an admission fee of $10 that covers food and lodging—it’s the only instance in which the players have to pay something in order to participate in the game.
Indeed, the fencing practice that takes place outside the Arkansas Union of UA is free and open to the public on Friday between 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.; a person may come and select a weapon and a shield and start battling other members.
Nonetheless, many players volunteer not only in crafting and paying for their own weapons but in repairing them as well—actions that ultimately reward the players with experience points (EXPs), which, once accumulated, help them acquire a new level, enhance certain parameters like stamina and dexterity, and gain new abilities and skills.
“It’s a live action game, a custom event, and a camping trip,” Remington said. “We basically run the game with all the bells and whistles.”
An Experience Unmatched
But to many of Westmark members, it is the social aspect of LARPing that makes it beneficially unique.
“I made a lot of friends, in-game and out-game,” West says. “Sometimes I go to the dining hall and I see some of them . . . and eventually we all found each other and congregated around a table.”
“It is the best thing I have done,” Rudisill says. “It relieves stress, it takes my mind off . . . but it also helped increase my social life. I think every people should give it a try.”
Also, considering the number of unique classes and races in the game, Remington notes that many players not only manage to work out their in-game prejudices but also their real life’s as well.
“If you suddenly find yourself desperate in need of somebody who can preform a special skill, you are quite willing to negotiate the whole lot of your personal prejudices just to get a hold if it,” he says. “A big part of the game is sometimes to get people who are pretty divergent to work together toward one goal.”
“We are also very big about the traditions of sharing and accepting other people’s weirdness,” Remington said, smiling.
In the end, however, LARPing boils down in letting one’s imagination go wild. “This is a hobby. This is a recreation. If you are not having a good time, you are doing it wrong,” he says.
Soon after West and Cantrell resume playing their roles of an Asgard defender and a Cimmerian warrior, the latter once again gets defeated, albeit unlawfully according to the rules of the game: West accidently hit Cantrell right in the crotch. The sacked Cimmerian, after he announces his defeat, shamefully trudges from the fencing field to a nearby bench over the loud laughters and encouraging jokes of his fellow Westmark members.
Once seated, Cantrell takes off his blue beret and waves it like a fan as he humorously laments the fact that there is no potion or a spell that could heal his sensitive wound. Indeed, even in fantasy, one’s human weakness is never immune from the intrusions of real life, regardless of level, race, rank, or choice of weaponry.