I’ve recently become involved with a live-action roleplay group called Darkon, reportedly the largest LARP group on the east coast. Darkon is meant to be a more “real” physical version of high fantasy tabletop games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer. Elements of in-game mythos are taken from D&D worldbuilding materials as well as classic high fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings. The idea is that during Darkon events and camp outs, you can become a fantasy character, escape your daily life, and—within the parameters of the rules—act out any scenario you like. This was what I had in mind when I began attending events earlier this year, but the reality of Darkon culture has proven rather disappointing, in that it relies less on actual roleplay and more on your ability to hit other people really really hard.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love whacking people with a foam sword as much as the next guy, but being that I’m 5′8″ and 125 pounds, I know that physical combat is not my strongest suit. I came into the game with lots of character-building and backstory ideas, excited to flesh out my personal storyline with my friends’ characters as we went along, but thus far, after two full-day events, none of that has been relevant. I haven’t even had to use my character’s name yet. We have done nothing at all besides hit each other a bunch.
At my first event I happened to notice that there was perhaps one woman to every ten men; by the end of the day it was clear how that trend had emerged. Darkon combat is full-contact — in fact one of my countrymen advised that some players will berate you for “not hitting them hard enough” and if you’re one of the smallest people on the field, it’s extremely likely that you’ll get the crap beaten out of you. In addition to that, players who have been to fewer than five events are allowed only certain weapons, can’t use magic, and can’t wear armor. For Darkon events, armor isn’t a fantasy element, but means real plate or heavy leather armor, which can be ungainly but does physically protect the player somewhat.
After the first event, where I was killed more times than I can count, knocked to the ground twice, and rather badly bruised over most of my limbs, I assumed that perhaps this one event was simply a combat-heavy event, and that we would get a chance to do some actual fantasy roleplay next time. No such luck. The second event was much the same as the first, except that I was physically knocked off my feet four times and accidentally struck on my un-armored head twice, once with the edge of someone’s shield. After talking to several other players, as well as my countrymen, it became clear that this is typical for a single-day Darkon event, and that roleplay only really happens at camp outs, which are held only once every few months.
This was disappointing, as I felt the whole point of fantasy roleplay was to be someone other than who you are in real life. In real life, I’m a small, slender, nearsighted dude who isn’t particularly coordinated. Because of the way Darkon is structured, the only fantasy character I’m able to play is a small, slender uncoordinated dude who gets pummeled by larger dudes. I understand that the “live action” element of live action roleplay limits the gameplay to some extent, but there are other roleplay communities that use different systems for combat to give an edge to people who are less physical. Knight Realms in New Jersey, for example, works more like a video game, where players can have shielding spells and abilities like “invisibility,” which forces other players not to acknowledge them under certain circumstances. In Darkon, I didn’t even have grand aspirations for my character in terms of combat ability — he was intended to be more of a slippery, deceitful charmer type — but there are simply no combat options for a player who isn’t a strong fighter.
It seems that, much to my disappointment, Darkon is very much a boys’ club, reliant mostly on physical size and strength. Although the weapon and gear restrictions for new players were likely intended for safety, in practice they mean that a player’s first several events work like hazing. If you can take a brutal pummeling for five events, then you can start using better weapons and wearing helmets. There is also something of a classist element to the game, since as I mentioned, in-game armor means real armor. Only real leather of a certain weight counts as leather armor, and only real plate metal counts as metal armor. While boffer weapons are cheap, armor is prohibitively expensive for many people, and without it a player can take only one body hit without dying. For anyone who wants to do actual interactive roleplay, there are the camp outs, but they are few and far between, and they also involve quite a lot of combat. I understand the appeal of adrenaline-fueled foam sword battles, but I was hoping for more from a LARP community.