Fantasy Unbroken: A Day in LARPing

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.

Balls Unprotected

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.

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Reserving the Arts — On Save the Fayetteville Underground Campaign

FAYETTEVILLE—One painting had opossums pinning down an anthropomorphic wolf into a catapult, and another had a Godzilla-size robot holding a picture of a house in front of its face, aswarm by smaller buildings that wore malicious eyes and sharp teeth. But there was one surrealist picture that stood out unimpressively in the artist cooperative; it had a thermometer measured by dollar signs whose bloody-red marker was dangerously low.

It was a sign for the “Save the Fayetteville Underground” campaign, and it was soliciting the attendees of the artist cooperative’s First Thursday for donation.

“The goal is to have us remain on the square.” Megan Chapman said, the co-director and a working artist at the Underground. “To raise extra money to move to a new location that is centrally located on the square, and to help us fix it up initially so to make it more appealing to people to come to.”

First Thursday, which is a monthly event where the artists meet and interact with the public, is one of the Underground’s key strategies to raise awareness of its campaign.

The Fayetteville’s Advertising and Promotion Commission is also one of the biggest external supporters of the campaign.

“We had travel writers in and we took them to the Underground,” Marilyn Heifer said, the executive director of FABC. “We took Arkansas’s Parks and Tourism Commission over and show them the Underground as well.”

The FABC also helped the Underground publish its 2011 Gallery Guide.

“I think they create a synergy in the square,” Heifer said. “It’s like a mutual appreciation; both of them would do well on their own but together it’s a dynamic combination.”

Indeed, as Chapman recalls, it was the Underground that spearheaded the community-driven vibrancy of the square.

“This building [East Square Plaza] was sitting vacant pretty much, so the restaurant upstairs and the retail upstairs and a lot of shops around the square weren’t here until the Underground moved in and created this really vital, exciting atmosphere that the other retail businesses wanted to be part of,” Chapman said. “It became an exciting thing for everybody.”

Now, after 3 years since its launch, the Underground will not renew its lease at the end of its current term. “We definitely have to clear out from our current location by January 15,” Chapman said.

The reason of the move is that the Plaza, which is owned by Ted Belton, is undergoing an expansive reconstruction early next year.

Nonetheless, the relationship between the landlord and the tenants remains solid; thanks to the reduced rate that Mr. Belton rented the space to the Underground 3 years ago, which, according to Chapman, was “a wonderful gift.”

Still, the possibility of having to move somewhere else beside the square may present dire consequences not only to the Underground’s artists but for the square visitors as well.

“That kind of exposure is just amazing for an artist even if it doesn’t translate to direct sales, which sometimes that takes awhile to build,” said Chapman, “but just getting your name out there, getting your face recognized, getting the style of work you create recognized by people, is essential to begin successful as an artist.”

“Exposure is huge,” Dana Idlet said, another working artist at the Underground. “I don’t know if there are any others places where many artists could show their work each month in the same town.”

“We knew when started this that we might not be able to stay here forever,” Chapman said. “Our organization is kind of growing and reforming all the time, so you might say that this is our first major growing pain in a growing organization.”

And while it is soon to gauge the campaign efforts on a practical level, Chapman remains optimistic of the move. “The show must go on,” she said, smiling.  “Somewhere.”

“We are artists. We are nomads. We go where the work is and we make things work.”

Toward a Classical Appreciation — On UA’s Piano Performance Program

The skillful fingers of Neil Rutman sprinted to action as soon as he had relished some applause at Stella Boyle Smith Concert Hall on Thursday night. His sole partner of the night was the jet-black piano that stood confidently on the stage. For nearly two hours, and under the sole light that came from ceiling of the hall, Rutman conjured up the spirit of 19th century pianists as he recreated their compositions with a dazzling, trance-like effect.

It was on 8pm, Sept. 22 when Mr. Rutman, Artist-in-Residence at the University of Central Arkansas, commenced the new season of J. W. Fulbright College’s Piano Performance Program.

A top prizewinner in many international competitions, Mr. Rutman started the piano recital with a brief lecture about the compositions and his personal impressions on each sonata. Later at the reception, after he had basked in a standing ovation, Mr. Rutman mingled with the attendees and shared his personal anecdotes about the worldwide tours he had. Many of his admirers who huddled around him were students from the University of Arkansas’s Department of Music.

Among the audience was UA’s piano professor, Jura Margulis, 53, the principle purveyor of the Piano Performance Program.

“I kind of put it together, under my guidance” Murgulis said. “The website, the program, the requirements, what it offers to do. It is good for students, pianists, and students of piano to be exposed to as much piano recitals as possible, and I have, fortunately, the possibility and the opportunity to bring very good performances to Fayetteville.”

According to Prof. Margulis, who has been arranging music events for the university for almost the last ten years, the current season of the piano program is a bit special in both quality and quantity. “This semester I am bringing more people . . . three pianists, and I play one of them myself with a singer,” he said.

Luckily for Prof. Margulis, the selection process was surprisingly effortless, thanks to his wide-reaching prestige and the intimacy he maintains with the industry.

“The world of music, the world of the pianist in particular, is small,” Margulis said with a humble smile. “I know a lot of pianists around the world. I have been doing this for 30 years. Many of the pianists I invited are themselves faculty at institutions, so they understand it.”

* * *

But to the inexperienced student, the world of classical music —no matter how small and close it is— may seem rather foreign and insulated. Prof. Margulis, on the other hand, thinks the unwillingness is unwarranted once students attend the program and give it an earnest try.

“For students that are not in a musical environment, we are giving them the opportunity to hear classical concerts,” Margulis said.

“We have a community of art in Fayetteville,” Margulis added, “and I am happy to contribute with these concerts. I hope these students know about our programs and come to hear us.”

Two audience members, Aurelien Boccard, 28, and Amy Frenzel, 23, attended the concert not only to listen to Mr. Rutman’s piano recitals, but also to get musically inspired by having the opportunity to schedule a practice session with Mr. Rutman the next day. Both Boccard and Frenzel are graduate students and piano majors at UA.

“There’s such a wild gamut of emotional expression that Mr. Rutman has created on the keyboard,” said Franzel. “[It] is such an opportunity for the students to really mature in and find out who they are.”

“I think the pianist [Rutman] today did a really great introduction,” Boccard said, “at explaining his concert and what to think about, and making the public really comfortable.”

Likewise, while both students recognize that classical music isn’t for everyone, the experience of physically attending one, they deem, remains unequaled and almost essential to the full college experience. “Going to an event like this you have a certain kind of intellectual development that you don’t have in sporting events . . . this is more like a social activity,” Frenzel said.

* * *

And much like his students, Prof. Margulis stresses on the intellectual benefit that these recitals hold for students, whether they are music or non-music majors. “There is definitely an educational role in there,” he said.

“It is always a pleasure to see an author at work,” Margulis said, “to see it is not a hobby. It is their destiny. It is the center of our existence as musicians.”

But for Mr. Rutman, “It’s an artistic obligation.” “Good music is part of our culture,” Rutman added, “so somebody has got to be there to present it.”

The Piano Performance Program, according to Prof. Margulis, is designed to go hand-in-hand with the many on-campus activities including the sporting events. “There is no contradiction to like to see a football game and like to go and see a classical concert,” he said. “You know, it makes life richer.”

And to extend the football analogy, Prof. Margulis recalls the first time he had attended a football game for first time when he came from Europe to the United States.

“I must say, the first time I looked at it and somebody has explained to me the rules I enjoyed it,” Margulis said, “because without the rules, it is a little harder to enjoy the game.”

“Classical music is a lit bit like that . . . the more you know it, the more you enjoy it.”

  • For more information about the Piano Performance Program and future recitals and events, please click HERE.

The Bookshop Around the Corner: The Success of Lisa Sharp

FAYETTEVILLE—“For any business, you need to do something you love,” she said with a smile, as her eyes affectionately scanned the nearby shelves staked with books and literary journals. “For booksellers, in particular, don’t expect to get rich. It’s not going to happen no matter what your projections are.”

When Lisa Sharp, 46, launched Nightbird Books on April 2006, a private bookstore on 205 W Dickson St., she didn’t let her business ambitions particularly overthrow her affection for books. On the contrary, Sharp’s bookstore canalized her passion of literature into a gratifying life mission of reading books and meeting authors and novelists, or “superstars” as she called them, who occasionally visit Nightbird Books while book touring.

For example, on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, Nightbird Books was welcoming author and English professor at Washburn University of Topeka, Thomas Fox Averill, who was scheduled to read excerpts from his new book, “Rode,” and carry out a Q&A session with the audience.

At 6:30pm, an hour before the event, Sharp was single-handedly arranging the chairs and tables of the one-year-old coffee shop inside the bookstore, which is known as BHK Kafé and independently owned by Sharp’s business partner and friend, David Lewis.

“I’m creating a fake front row,” she said, in reference to the reading slated for later that evening. It was no surprise, then, to see Sharp sitting in that front row an hour later. She became a fan of Averill when she read his novels prior to his tour.

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