It’s a cold autumn night in inner city Melbourne, and bloodlust is in the air. Spread out over a football field, hundreds of men and women are waging war. With colourful robes, pointed elf ears, plate armour and myriad fantasy costumes of varying quality, these role-players have come from all over the city to immerse themselves in a fantasy world of powerful magic, perilous adventure and epic battles. Above the clamour of fierce combatants, someone bellows, ‘blood and courage!’ This is Swordcraft – Australia’s largest and arguably most public live action role-playing (LARP) organisation.
Viewed from the sidelines, this Friday night ritual comes across as more than a little novel. But to its dedicated adherents, that’s all the more reason to love it. Swordcraft hosts LARP battles at the Southern Pavilion of Princes Park every Friday. The battles are played until 10:30pm and regularly attract in excess of two hundred participants.
One of the city’s most heavily used parks might seem an unlikely venue for an activity most people would associate with the underworld of nerd culture. Yet, in its relatively short history – Swordcraft began in April 2011 – it’s become something of a regular spectacle and has garnered a swathe of mainstream media attention, from Channel Ten’s The Project and News at Five to articles in the Age and Time Out Magazine. Its board members now report anywhere between 20 to 45 new players turning up every week.
There are dedicated LARP groups all over the country, covering a range of distinct fantasy genres, from steampunk to vampires. Perhaps due to this diversity, there is no single LARP clearinghouse or organisation in Australia, but many national organisations exist overseas, especially in Europe. In 2012, for example, Time Magazine highlighted Denmark as the global hotspot for LARP with over one hundred thousand participants.
So what’s the appeal? It is easy to dismiss the theatricality of LARP as a ridiculous, albeit fun exercise in escapism. There is no shortage of elaborate costumes and the foam latex weapons do have an almost-wobbly nature that lends a comic touch to the scene. But if all participants are looking for is escape from the real world, why go to all the trouble when online fantasy and massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPG) are only a click away? And in the case of Swordcraft, why do it all so publicly, under lights, in a place usually reserved for football practice?
For founding member Nelson Gallardo it boils down to sheer infectious fun. ‘You’ll have one of two reactions when you pick up that latex sword; you’ll either love it, or you won’t.’ Gallardo, 34, with just a hint of grey in his hair, explains that Swordcraft aims to be an entry-level LARP, with the overall aim of establishing and promoting a community for LARPers and fantasy enthusiasts. There’s no skillset required to play (beyond being able to hit people with foam swords), and the game itself is easy to pick up, due to its mostly physical nature.
Quite apart from ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ style table top roleplaying, Swordcraft aims to be physically immersive, community-based and fun. The website asks you to think of it as ‘paintball meets medieval/fantasy battle – carnage with a dash of medieval re-enactment, roleplaying and cosplay.’ Going on to offer potential players a pointed reminder: ‘Remember also that humour is critical, we should be able to laugh at ourselves when we wear tights and take a joke at our expense. This is a game where we look silly for kicks – never forget that!’
Gallardo was one of three founding members, along with brothers Jeff and Phil Krins. All three demonstrate the diverse backgrounds of Swordcraft’s participants; Gallardo has a background in finance, Phil is a behavioural psychologist and Jeff is a partner in two law firms. According to Gallardo, Swordcraft attracts all sorts, from those in the Defence Force to students, doctors, police officers and tradies.
In a lot of ways, LARP requires a level of commitment that could be off-putting; a full kit, for example, including sword and full plate of armour (breastplate, spaulders, skirt, tassets and helmet), can easily cost upwards of $1000. On top of that, you need to create and maintain your own character. And yet, perhaps unlike other LARP organisations in Australia and beyond, Swordcraft is incredibly accessible to newcomers. It maintains a relaxed come-as-you-are policy, has a sword rental option for those unprepared and encourages new players to bring along a sense of humour.
On a monthly basis, organisers invite participants to a Swordcraft Quest – an expanded, weekend long version of the Friday night game that is geared toward a more traditional LARP experience, with a pre-written backstory featuring characters like Baron Gustav Von Morgan and Duke Leon de la Rochette. The Swordcraft Quest can be thought of as a kind of LARP festival, complete with arts and crafts, an inn, and of course a battle as the main event. Its form is adapted from Germany’s DrachenFest – an annual event that hosts thousands of LARPers who attend the weekend-long event in character. Swordcraft Quests cater to more dedicated role-players, and as such usually play host to a slightly smaller group of around one hundred and eighty. Even so, as a non-profit organisation, Swordcraft’s ability to regularly stage events on this scale is staggering. A recent Quest held at Sokil Arts Eco Retreat, just west of Angelsea, featured a full medieval style feast with your choice of spit roasted pork or beef, additional catering for the remainder of the weekend and a mixture of modern and medieval themed accommodation.
As treasurer, Gallardo points out that because of the way the organisation has been set up, with every player contributing a small membership fee, things like this are easily manageable. Recently, after a particularly wintry Friday, organisers spent $1800 on pizza and beer as a reward for its diehard players.
Talking to participants, a commonly quoted motivation for joining Swordcraft is friendship. Alex, 24, is a healer/mage who’s been playing regularly for a few months. Before Swordcraft, he had no experience with LARP. ‘Honestly, the reason why I still stick at it is because of the friends I’ve made here and the groups I’m in. It’s more a social thing for me than anything else. It’s the same reason why people stick at sports and stuff like that; it’s somewhat the actual sport but half the time it’s this social stuff on the side.’ As a very physical version of role-playing, this brand of LARPing could easily be mistaken for a sport complete with volunteer referees and medical staff.
And looking at the official rules of the game, there is an effort to downplay the role-playing aspect in preference for a more casual environment. Notably, there’s an effort to keep pretend to a minimum to avoid people inventing outlandish fantasy elements to the detriment of the game. The rulebook explains, ‘if you need a fire: light one; if you need to read a map: read one; if you need to read and write: do it… what you can do in real life you can do in game if you consider it appropriate for your character. There are no character sheets and no special abilities.’ This not only lessens the learning curve to make it easier for new players, it also removes temptation for players to become what role-players call, ‘a Mary Sue’: a term derived from fan fiction in which a character is judged as poorly developed, too perfect and lacking in realism. Writing under the name GramTash, a Swordcraft forum poster offers an explanation of the term for new players, noting that in Swordcraft, you can write your own background, be whichever race you want, be pretty much anything you want, but, ‘like most communities, what you choose to play only works if others want to play with you. Have you ever played in a cops and robbers game and had the argument “I shot you,” “No you didn’t?” A good character has flaws as well as strengths, and fits in with the rest of established lore.’
Undoubtedly, the commitment to any form of role-play requires active participation in a shared fantasy. And while there may be a hierarchy of sorts, Swordcraft has a classless system that allows you to play the role you want to play – the only caveat being that your character has to be accepted by the community. All players must agree that a certain number of ‘hit points’ will result in incapacitation. And apart from a few referees, each player has a responsibility to self-monitor the number of hits they receive. For without inherent limitations, the fantasy becomes a house of cards. In this sense, all players are afforded meaning and are given an equal role in maintaining the illusion.
And herein lies an important difference between LARP and the role-playing available in MMORPGs. While both trade in similar fantasy worlds with similar rules and mechanics, LARP requires your participation, online role-playing simply asks for it. LARP, and particularly Swordcraft, is an open source community where you can be whoever, and whatever you want. Rather than the fantasy being dictated by third party coding or graphics, the group’s collective imagination and mutual participation are the only boundaries to the fantasy. The world in which Swordcraft’s LARPers do battle is one entirely of their own making: participation is essential to its existence. There is a shared sense of creation, a constant reinforcement that your imagination means something to the collective. Swordcraft promotes collaboration and asks you to immerse yourself not only in a roughly medieval fantasy world of epic battle and adventure, but in a much richer community of like-minded participants, working toward the same vision.