Ready Or Not, the Live-Action Role-Players Of Darkon Get Their Closeup
Two armies face each other beneath a blistering midday sun, the glean from their regal armor almost blinding. Fists drum against emblazoned shields. Generals stir in each line of warriors an almost religious fervor to die gloriously for their great countries. Humans and elves raise their weapons—swords, battle axes, maces—and roar so that even the gods can hear them.¸
“Charge!” howls one of the generals. His noble enemy across the field of battle orders the same. Slowly, overwhelmed perhaps by the prospect of death, warriors charge forward and collide with each other in a flurry of carnage that may be retold for centuries in song and myth. Watching from the sidelines, some 60 or so family and friends shout their support. Their mini-vans wait to whisk them away.
Afterward, the wounded are tended to, holy clerics say prayers over the dead, and corpses are dragged from the field. “There’s definitely a feast at a local watering hole where the myth begins,” says Skip Lipman, one of those warriors. “The reality of the day is over, and then the storytelling starts. And if it’s Sunday afternoon during football season, we’re trying to find the game. It’s definitely just guys out having our fun.”
On any given weekend in the Baltimore-Washington area, epic battles that play out very much like this are taking place in local parks and campgrounds. The men and women of the Darkon Wargaming Club Inc., dress in medieval-style costumes and armor and pound on each other with foam-padded weaponry. They give themselves names specific to their game realm, Darkon. And it has evolved into a complex game/sport of character role-playing and physically challenging battles with a membership of more than 1,000 strong with some 300 active participants. For the layman, they make The Lord of the Rings a simulated reality. And they’ve been doing it since 1985.
In the fall of 2003, filmmakers Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer began regularly making the long drive from their New York homes to Baltimore in order to transform the Darkonians’ stories into Darkon, from which the above scene comes. The documentary premiered at the 2006 South by Southwest Film Festival, where it won the Audience Documentary Award along with some of the fest’s loudest buzz. Getting Darkon’s members to agree to the movie wasn’t the easiest task, though. Many players worried that the project would deteriorate into a mockumentary, that Darkon would become the next Trekkies—a documentary that ridiculed Star Trek’s decidedly obsessive fans.
“People think we’re wackos,” Kenyon Wells, aka Keldar of Mordom, admits over the phone. “I have no compunctions about that.”
Wells, a 36-year-old from Fairfax County, Va., is a manager at a large IT consulting firm and has been playing games like Darkon for more than 20 years, ever since his mother took him to a J.R.R. Tolkien literature festival. The other attendees, costumed as the characters he grew up reading about, staged mock duels and inspired his imagination. Afterward, he tracked the live-action role-playing phenomena (also called LARPing) until he was old enough to participate himself.
“We dress up funny, run around in the woods, and hit each other with sticks,” he says. “There’s something inherently a little funny about that. But how different is it from joining a softball league? You buy a uniform, you spend a lot of time practicing so you can hit a ball with a stick, and run around in a circle. Football, baseball, bowling—they don’t actually accomplish anything. That’s why they’re called games. Darkon’s the same thing, but, since people don’t know about it, it’s not as socially accepted.”
Lusby resident Geoffrey Smith, aka Shafor of the eccentrically named country Bloody Axe Mercenary Co. (for the right price, they’ll kill whoever you want), ran for and won the club’s presidency when it became obvious that Neel and Meyer’s documentary was going to require negotiations to protect Darkon from being exploited. In fact, the 34-year-old insurance company manager’s wife was a Darkonian, too, up until her first pregnancy. “I know it’s a very geeky hobby,” he says. “I mean, when my friend brought me to it for the first time, I didn’t want to get out of the car. I thought it was the dorkiest thing I’d ever seen. And 12 years later, of course, I’m running the thing.”
Darkonians are used to being the butt of jokes. In fact, it’s common that, like Smith, many current players resisted participating at first. The “satanic” stigma that was attached to Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s following conservative crusades by misguided parents such as Patricia Pulling’s BADD (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons) has never really been erased. And despite the millions of fans who have helped George Lucas and Peter Jackson become billionaires, average folks still dismiss fantasy and science fiction as hobbies for lonely, acne-scarred basement dwellers who download elf porn and masturbate to video games like EverQuest. The notion that somewhere between 110 and 150 men and women regularly gather to dress like knights of the Round Table and say things like, “The one thing I do need and will pay greatly for is a supernatural death poison,” is just too much for most people to accept—despite an enthusiastic willingness to pay $10 to see the same thing on a 60-foot screen.
For the players, Darkon is just another way to experience these sorts of fantasy worlds but with the inherent vicariousness of it stripped away. “The game has evolved into a world of a lot of depth that’s real to a lot of people because of the time and energy they put into it,” Skip Lipman explains of the club’s history. The 37-year-old stay-at-home father of three became the de facto emissary for Darkon to the rest of the world after Neel and Meyer made his in-game persona Bannor of Laconia’s plight to usurp Wells’ Mordom from its imperial perch the focus of their documentary. The filmmakers couldn’t have found a more ideal subject, or one who would revel in it more—at least judging by the opinion of many of his fellow Darkonians. A high-school jock and one-time heir to the Armory, a now-defunct gaming supply distributorship built by his father, the Pikesville resident is a self-assured, boxy man with jet-black hair, a distinguished Musketeer’s goatee, and, as his adoring wife Lisa puts it, “the soul of an adventurer.”
“That [history] makes it a richer experience for new players, too, because there’s this depth,” Lipman says during a conversation the morning after Darkon’s premiere at SXSW, seated between bright-eyed Neel and scruffy-faced Meyer in the Austin Convention Center. “Not only do you go there and see costumes and swing swords at people, but there’s all these individual and personal stories of grand epic adventures that come together to weave the tapestry that is Darkon.”
That night at a party in the movie’s honor Lipman takes the stage bedecked in plate-mail armor and the red, black, and yellow colors of Laconia, dollar bills sticking out of his tunic where women have stuffed them, and mock-duels the comparatively diminutive Neel as the audience cheers. Neel, a semiregular Darkonian since wrapping Darkon, isn’t exactly a novice with the sword. He knows what he’s doing, that much is obvious. He lunges, but misses. He keeps his swings tight and quick, trying not to invite a counter from Lipman. And yet it doesn’t matter because Lipman, after all, has been doing this for 13 years. His foam-padded sword lashes out and strikes Neel one, two, three times before it’s over. Lipman, arms raised above his head, his face scrunched up like a victorious WWE wrestler’s, drinks in the crowd’s love.
On the battle field, each of Lipman’s hits would be followed by the shout of a color to indicate the strength of his weapon while his opponent, say Neel, would—using an honor system—measure the strength of that hit against the type of armor he himself wore, from leather to chain mail or plate mail, each progressively stronger and able to absorb more damage before that one final blow that would send him to Hades. Literally: Hades is a cordoned-off area where the dead go to wait four to 12 minutes before being able to rejoin the living and the battle.
None of this simulated battle would amount to more than an excuse to thump on other players if not for the creation of character personas with personal histories and a country to which they swear allegiance; at any given time there are an average of 20 countries, of various sizes and populations. Through these characters, the citizens of Darkon are able to plot and scheme for victory. For example—and this has been the case for some time—the country of Mordom, governed by Wells/Keldar, holds the most land on Darkon’s hexagonal-based map that, through various game mechanics, changes its face with every battle and the more traditional land explorations of explorers. As the biggest kid on the block, Mordom makes a regular habit of nudging and sometimes bullying the smaller countries, such as Lipman’s Laconia.
As such, it’s not entirely coincidental that Neel and Meyer painted Mordom as a U.S.-like superpower being challenged by an alliance of underdogs. In the movie, one Darkonian even compared his tiny country’s quest to “the terrorists.”
Injuries—at least minor ones—are common, but nowhere on par with what the typical football game entails. “I do dress up, I do go out and role-play, but I stopped fighting years ago,” says 30-year-old Rebecca Thurmond of Sykesville, aka Nemisis of Caldonia, over a cell phone during a drive home from the grocery store. A single mother and secretary recently engaged to a fellow Darkonian, she’s anxious to shed the Amazonian image she feels Neel and Meyer tried, unsuccessfully, to fit her into. “I’m fragile,” she protests. “I kept getting hurt. After one concussion and a couple of twisted ankles, having to miss work because of Darkon, it wasn’t worth it anymore. I have a mouth to feed, my son.”
Don’t think Darkon is just a guy’s thing though, like so many male-dominated sports. At the moment, the game’s players are approximately 20 percent female. Other women, she adds dismissively, show up only to support their boyfriends.
“Some of the men can’t stand the girls who sit on the sideline and don’t participate,” Thurmond says. “Some of them have nothing but respect for the women who get out there and take the field, and like the fact the girls are standing right there beside them ready to kick butt.”
Smith concurs. “The only thing that people are judged by is their participation in the club,” he says. “There is literally no racial discrimination. The population of women has just exploded in the last five years. You have 40-year-olds fighting against 16-year-olds, people with every sort of career.”
What draws people to the game is its ability to tap into something almost atavistic in human nature, the same need for belonging that Sigmund Freud would tell us birthed the world’s religions. In fact, the players feel it fills a deficiency found in today’s culture, which Andrew Mattingly (aka Shapwin of Laconia) sums up best in the movie: “Everything that was once noble and good in this world is gone, and it’s been replaced with Wal-Mart.”
And, Neel says, “These outsiders found and created this sort of social utopia.”
Populated by blue-collar stiffs, white-collar number pushers, lawyers and doctors, and ex-military seeking to regain the camaraderie they had in the service, Darkon is “a testament of the imagination,” Smith insists. “Everything you see in the movie is an accumulation of 20 years of people’s imaginations. What I really love about it is you feel like you’re 5 years old again. People kind of live their lives like they’re born with a finite amount of imagination, and they use up most of it when they’re little, and they use less and less and less of it the older they get. Darkon really does put you back in that mind-set of a little kid when you’re enveloped in your own world of make-believe. Nothing else really does that.”
Lipman, a poster child for men who never grew up, calls Darkon an “escapist hobby” that can, at times, cost players more than it should. “Some people are running away from their real-life problems, whether it be with their families or an inability to put things together in real life and hold down a job, or school’s not going well,” he says. “And sometimes Darkon can just be a part of that negative thing, because they push away their real life and they focus too much on Darkon, rather than it being a positive experience where at least there’s someplace where I’ve got my shit together. It can be an anchor for those who are adrift.”
“Every once in a while you see someone [in Darkon] and you think, You really should pay a little more attention to your day-to-day life,” says Meyer, who is soft-spoken and so intimidated by interviews that he has a habit of stammering. “But as a whole, it’s not a major problem. No one’s getting carried away.”
“We have lawyers, doctors, and other professionals,” Wells says, selling his argument with a used-car salesman’s polished delivery. It’s clear he’s made this speech on more than one occasion. “But there are a lot of people, especially in their teenage years, who find it easier to relate to people through a game construct rather than what often is a hostile high-school environment. Myself, I was one of those classic overweight, socially inept gamer geeks when I was young, and Darkon was my first exposure to public speaking, my first exposure to leadership. In leading small groups of people in a group environment, now I manage a lot of people, speak before hundreds of people at client engagements and trade shows, and it’s helped me mature a lot. Maybe everyone doesn’t get out of the game what I’ve got out of it, but it’s had a very positive impact on my life and I think on many others’.”
For Thurmond, Darkon was a haven from the, as she puts it, “bad scene” she had slipped into as an exotic dancer prior to becoming pregnant with her son. The friendships she forged through Darkon continue to draw her back today. Same goes for Smith, who once turned to Darkon to escape the sense that he had lost control of his own life. These days, he no longer needs it “as a form of alternative interaction,” he says. “But I still enjoy the combat aspect of it. It’s cool just to be able to hit people sometimes.”
Wells is much more concerned about multiplayer online games and other online social networks. “There’s no physical interaction,” he says. “People just stay in their basements all day. I think that’s a lot more threatening than our little game.”
Neel first discovered LARPing while researching for a script on the underworld of Dungeons and Dragons. Not long after, he reconnected with his high-school buddy Meyer at a 2003 wedding where, in a drunken exchange, he pitched the idea of documenting the Darkon Wargaming Club and Meyer enthusiastically agreed—perhaps not realizing what he was getting himself into.
Today, Meyer reports Darkon feels like it took a “a billion years” to finish, when, in truth, it was a mere three years and 320 hours of footage. “It was a long process,” he says, sighing. “The first day we showed up, I think it was exciting for everyone to have the cameras there. People on the field let us come out there and run right with them, chasing them. But then we stuck around, coming around to more and more events, and people got a little worried.”
Even after the directors gained permission to film the club in action, the Darkonians’ concerns never fully evaporated despite a good deal of sweet-talking from Neel and Meyer, whose extroverted and introverted personality types appealed in different ways to different players—what they call a “yin and yang approach.”
“At the end of the day, every person that comes up we’d have to explain to them why we were there,” Neel says. And they would say, “‘We’re not trying to screw this game, we’re not trying to portray you as a bunch of dorks, we want to portray you as human beings.’”
“Given the nature of what we do and the way in which it’s perceived, most people were apprehensive about their intentions,” Smith explains. “They felt [Darkon] was going to be something that was going to mock us. There were people who just flat out said we want no part of this. Whole countries wouldn’t be part of it.”
In the end, damn near half of the Darkon Wargaming Club actually refused to participate. One of those countries was Smith’s Bloody Axe Mercenary Co. (though he ultimately did participate). A longtime friend of Smith’s, Dan Boomhower, 35, says the decision was made by his country as a group, though the individual reasons to skip out on the documentary were varied.
“Some people just plain didn’t like being on camera,” Boomhower explains over the phone. “Didn’t have anything to do with the documentary itself. But I’d say most of the people who opted not to participate were a little leery of [Neel’s production company] SeeThink. We’d all seen Trekkies and thought, Great, these guys are going to come out and make some kind of mockumentary to make fun of us.”
“I think there’s still a lot of apprehension in the club about supporting the movie and getting behind the project,” Lipman says. “People’s fantasy worlds are very important to them. It’s something they hold very dear to their heart.”
But the investment of those like Lipman, Smith, and Wells in Darkon who vouched for Neel and Meyer appears to be paying off. Early screenings were met with approval from the club, though suggestions aplenty were made to help clarify the nature of the sport, while the final cut that premiered at SXSW met with almost universal praise and was being discussed in every corner of the festival. Nevertheless, the aftereffects of Darkon can still be felt across the realm.
“The documentary, by its very nature, was something of a disruptive force in the game,” Wells says. Neel and Meyer “showed up and they wanted to make this film, and a number of us supported it. And as soon as most of the game supported it, various people were jockeying for face time in front of the camera. And [the filmmakers] wanted to film it about a conflict.”
That conflict erupted in the form of Lipman’s Bannor rallying the lesser countries into an alliance to challenge Wells’ Keldar of Mordom. “Maybe the root cause of the conflict was already there, but clearly them pushing for a conflict delivered a conflict,” Wells contends. “Many people were really upset about that disruptive element of the documentary. I don’t know if Laconia would’ve turned on Mordom the way they did if not for the documentary.”
Lipman admits that his collusion with the filmmakers didn’t win him a host of fans in the club. “I think there was a certain amount of, ‘Oh, Skip’s just doing this for the movie, he doesn’t really believe in what he’s doing,’” he says. “That made it hard for me to get allies and bring people to my cause. I think that worked to the benefit of Mordom, because they are the big dogs.”
For their parts, Neel and Meyer are much more interested in discussing the nature of fantasy worlds and the nature of Darkon, which suffers from some very real-world problems. “What’s amazing about fantasy worlds is that they’re not perfect either,” Neel says. “In fact, in a way, when you try to bring your fantasy world out here, things fall apart. Our perfect perception of how the world should be and what we’re going to do gets messy because reality’s messy. I think it’s one of the interesting ideas in the film. What is being searched for there? Do we want the ideal? Well, if that was the case, why wouldn’t they be playing video games instead? It’s because, in a way, we desire the sloppiness, we want to be able to reckon with the details.”
That’s the sociological eye of a documentary filmmaker speaking, of course. Lipman sees it another way. “Right now, for people with a sense of adventure, really your imagination is the ultimate vista to live out those adventures,” he says. “Darkon’s the only place in the world where you can have that kind of experience without investing huge amounts of time and money. So by bringing our fantasies to life, we create this adventure right there in our backyard, in the park, and on the field.”
And those fantasy lives have grown into an ongoing, ever-evolving game complete with battles to fight, wars to win, and empires to topple. “The battle rages on,” Lipman laughs.
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