If you grew up on, say, Conan the Barbarian or Willow or, more recently, Lord of the Rings and, while watching these movies, tended to think things like, 'You know, dressing up in armor and cleaving orcs in two with a bad-ass sword sounds like a helluva lot of fun," then you might want to join Baltimore's Darkon Wargaming Club or, at least, check out directors Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer's documentary Darkon ('Sword Play," May 10, 2006). This smart, often hilarious, and even more often poignant look into the lives of men and women who regularly congregate to participate in a live-action role-playing game called, as you probably guessed, Darkon reveals a world where fantasy-the sort of Dungeons and Dragons 'silliness" that so often gets derided-becomes not only an escape from the real world but also a tool to help shape and even reinvent who we are.
Darkon is like playing Lord of the Rings for real-but with foam-covered fake swords and magic that's less than magical. Most of it is in the players' heads. Nevertheless, through a complex rules system, hundreds of Darkonians battle using 'weapons" and 'magic" against each other and a slew of monstrous beasts. Don't laugh, though. It's much less ridiculous than you think, as Neel and Meyer convey with deeply personal and insightful interviews with the players of Darkon as well as their families. These are juxtaposed with footage of the Darkonians' weekend fantasy retreats and their grandly staged battles that include hundreds of players.
The star of Darkon is the ever-eccentric Skip Lipman, a one-time heir to a gaming empire who is now a stay-at-home dad who pours as much love into Darkon as he does his family. On the field of combat, he dreams of achieving the greatness he feels is missing in his real life and, during the course of the filmmakers' documentary, he launches a large-scale war against the reigning empire that is led by Kenyon Wells. Of course, this is a fantasy world, though, and names like Skip and Kenyon don't fly there. Instead, it's Bannor of Laconia and Keldar of Mordom.
This story line is where Darkon stumbles, as Lipman's quest often feels inspired by the cameras-which is not to say Lipman staged his war for the documentary. But it is to say he certainly embraced being its star and Neel and Meyer don't acknowledge this despite how apparent it is. In a movie that oozes with sincerity, a bit more objectivity could have helped it become a word-of-mouth classic. For now, it's a wonderful tribute to how far people will go to escape the lack of purpose society offers them.