The Trouble with Darkon

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.

darkon waaaaagh

Shows up to do war fifteen minutes late with Starbucks.

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.

darkon battle 1

New kids can’t sit with us at lunch.

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.

darkon battle 2

There is method to the madness, but like… only just.

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.


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6 thoughts on “The Trouble with Darkon

  1. Honestly, if you’re looking for a Boffer LARP, I’d suggest checking out Dystopia Rising sometime. They’ve got branches all over the place. I know the Texas game has a more even-ish gender ratio, and there’s a lot more in the way of non-combat options. (It can still be a bit tricky to get the hang of things as a new player, but the playerbase is really friendly, and it often helps if you go in with a couple of your own friends).

    As a bonus, Dystopia Rising has a post apocalyptic setting (basically, live action Fallout), which makes costuming a lot easier. You can kit yourself out with random junk from the back of your closet/thrift store, and it’ll be entirely in-character, instead of trying to piece together something vaguely medevial-ish.

  2. Hello! I don’t know if you’ll see this, but I’m on the east coast and Darkon chapters are the only LARPs that I know of in my area. I am an 18 year old girl who happens to be athletically average to a painful extent, and I’ve always wanted to Larp but I’ve been putting off actually going out and trying my hand at it because I’ve been worried that the local Darkon chapter will be similar to what you described above. I really love the roleplay part of Larp (and roleplaying games in general), much much more than the fighting as I see fights as opportunities for character development. As soon as I turned 18 and no longer needed anyone else’s permission to join Darkon, I looked them up for like the fiftieth time, and sighed unhappily yet again because the combat seemed to be the main focus, and that just doesn’t sound wonderful for me personally. They also didn’t seem too welcoming of noobs such as myself, especially those who (tragically) can’t afford $200 of plate or leather armor, much less run around in it all weekend (I’m a weakling, it’s true). I’m fine with combat and I’m fine with latex weapons and so on, I just want to be somewhere in character, where character matters, and where it’s not a bunch of men running around hitting each other 90% of the time. And you know, I’m not a fan of extensive bruising either.

    SO going by that lengthy analysis, I was just wondering if there were any LARPs on the east coast that you know of which focus on character, are welcoming, and so on? If not, that’s fine. I could just dump all of my dwindling cash on a trip up to Bicolline, I suppose, but I was hoping to get some experience before I did that…

    • Hey! So I can’t speak from personal experience yet, and I don’t know where you live exactly, but there is a LARP group in New Jersey called Knight Realms that I’ve been invited to by some friends, and based on what I’ve heard it seems to be exactly the sort of thing you’re looking for. I’m going to my first Knight Realms event next weekend so I’ll be able to report on it, and I may even write an article about the experience, but here’s a few key elements that have been explained to me:
      -It’s a 24-hour weekend LARP once a month, meaning from the time they start Friday night to the time they end Sunday afternoon, you’re actually required to be in-character the whole time. You can get extra bonuses if a marshal spots you doing some particularly engaging roleplay, and if you are disruptively out of character without a valid reason (medical problem, personal emergency, etc) you can be penalized and even asked to leave.
      -The people who run the LARP actually own the property, so there are permanent, period-style structures, including guild halls, taverns, and inns. There is also an in-game market where you can actually buy real stuff, like food and costume pieces and trinkets and stuff. You can sleep indoors, which is nice, and they really pay a lot of attention to making the whole environment immersive. There’s a lake with NPC mermaids in it. People wear mermaid tails in the summer and hang out in the lake. It’s wild.
      -Character death is permanent (in most cases, sometimes you can be brought back but there are major penalties) so combat is as balanced as possible to prevent player characters from dying and PvP combat is discouraged. You can choose to be an entirely non-combat character if you want, there are lots of non-combat professions, which doesn’t necessarily prevent other characters from attacking you, but there are also abilities that allow you to be stealthy (which forces other characters not to acknowledge you) and options to flee from combat where most characters can’t pursue you.

      There’s a lot of good info on their website (knightrealms.com) so definitely look into it! And if you do live a bit far away, the events are only once a month, and carpooling is always an option.

  3. Pingback: Knight Realms: A LARP that Doesn’t Suck | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

  4. You’re not wrong about Darkon, Pan. The day events usually are just two-team, hack-and-slash, rinse-and-repeat. They do try to change things up, and for the most part, people tend to hit less hard on unarmored or smaller players. But, not always. There have always been those who go full-force on everyone, or ignore common courtesy (like not shooting for the head with arrows, or being careful to avoid groin-shots). It is a mixed bag, as a lot of players in the past would ignore those hits, or ignore hits as “too light”, so a lot of folks simply hit hard and keep hitting until someone goes down, or declares themselves dead. There is ongoing balance, but at the end of the day, it is supposed to be on the honor system if an Elder is not around to see it. Players who routinely flaunt the rules or are unsafe are dealt with through reporting such behavior to the Elders that day, and/or reports to the Noble Council or Executive Board members. It has changed quite a bit since I started back in 1988 (I am not a regular player since moving too far away).

    That all said, while it IS, technically, a LARP, the most fun times (and most roleplay) are campouts, much as, apparently, with Knight Realms. It is supposed to be full RP from Friday through Sunday, and a lot of the countries have gotten extremely good at planning the campout adventures that they craft, even going so far as to set up taverns, pit fights, and evening side events (most people relax and full combat at night is often avoided as more difficult to be safe). You are spot-on about the lack of RP during day events. It is there, but it is much more subtle, and focused around the combat. A lot of that is why I was active in other LARPs for many years. A lot of Darkon regulars love the combat (the same reason Dagorhir is still around, despite being 95% combat and MAYBE 5% story). I always liked the story, and one called Archaea was amazing for that. Its creator, Ed Chang, left the DC area many years ago, and the DC chapter folded a couple of years later, but he keeps it alive, mostly at the universities at which he is a professor. Check it out, if you are interested, archaea.org. I’m not certain if they have regular events, or if it is based on his courses, but he has written some amazing stories for it over the years.

  5. Pingback: Yet Another LARP Review: Dead Legends | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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