|Warriors of the Woods
From the Tallahassee Democrat. Feel free to read it there.
They meet, they fight, they imagine, all on a Sunday afternoon
By Kathleen Laufenberg
DEMOCRAT STAFF WRITER
Badger at your peril the Baron of the Lost Woods.
In a churlish mood, the Baron may shout, "By the fires of the Phoenix, I heat that weapon!" and, shazam, whatever weapon you're toting may magically sizzle your hand.
Or he might hurl a bolt of lightning at you, or a spell ball, or perchance enchant your shield. The Baron can do all that, and more - but only on Sundays. That's when the Baron Almasy Marquis - aka 19-year-old Brendan McLeod - grabs his homemade tunic, scoops up his foam-covered weapons and either hitches a ride or catches a TalTran bus to the Barony of the Lost Woods in the Kingdom of Neverwinter, a spot better known to most Tallahasseeans as the woods beside James Messer athletic fields.
There, beneath a canopy of pine and oak adjacent to picnic tables and a ball field, the teen transforms from a hard-working Florida State University student into the regal, ever-ready-to-battle medieval Baron. It is as the fictional Baron that he plays a live-action, role-playing game called Amtgard.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, McLeod - clad in his red, yellow and green tunic and surrounded by about 20 similarly dressed young men and women - tried to explain the allure of this unusual battle game.
"The real core of what we do out here is the fighting," said McLeod, who is studying classical civilizations and religion. "You're always looking for a reason to say, 'Let's have a war.'"
Fortunately, though, when wars erupt in the Lost Woods - which happens almost as soon as players arrive - no one truly gets hurt. Bruised, yes. But no broken bones.
As odd as this combo of physical workout and role-playing may sound, players said it's more addicting than peanut butter and jelly. Similar games are happening everywhere: The Barony of the Lost Woods is but one of hundreds of chapters in Amtgard, a nonprofit, medieval-fantasy role-playing society founded in El Paso, Texas, in 1983.
They dig ditching
Players who, like McLeod, enjoy the game's fighting aspect are dubbed "stick jocks" - an apt nickname, as most of what they do is attack each other with doctored-up sticks. Usually, they brandish inverted golf clubs encased in Fun Noodles, those colorful foam floats you see in pools.
Stick jocks are called "ditch monkeys," too, a spin-off of the term "ditching," used to describe the warm-up sparring players do before an official battle begins. Because an afternoon of whacking people with sticks can be rough on the hands, the serious ditch monkeys wear lacrosse gloves.
But what, you may wonder, is so much fun about hitting each other with sticks?
"I like the whole thrill of the fight and knowing that nobody gets hurt," said 30-year-old graphic designer Steve Haynes (game name: Stephanus).
During a battle, players assume their fictional personae and any one of more than a dozen roles, such as wizard, warrior, bard, assassin, monster, monk, scout, archer, druid or healer. Each role has certain powers, weapons and rules.
"The class system of the game exists to make sure that people of all shapes and sizes can play the sport and still have a fun time," 23-year-old Brad Ellis (game name: Lord Darian Staruk) wrote in an e-mail. "If you want to be a wizard and just use spells, you can. If you want to just purely fight and never utter one thing about magic, you can."
'A living book'
As players master skills, they advance to higher role-playing levels. (For example there's a first-level warrior, second-level warrior and so on, up to the most accomplished sixth-level warrior.) Some stick with just a few roles, such as monk or wizard, while others try on lots of different ones. The rule book defining what players can and can't do in each role at each level runs 75 pages.
"There are so many rules that sometimes it can be overwhelming," said David Carr (game name: Khazon), a University of Florida student majoring in German. The 24-year-old and several others from Gainesville's Amtgard chapter, the Grand Duchy of Darkwater East, recently visited Tallahassee to do battle with the Barony of the Lost Woods.
Because it is complicated, new players are initially assigned a mentor. You don't need to know all the rules, however, to start playing.
"It's a great workout and an awesome stress reliever," said Danielle Kilpatrick, a 19-year-old Santa Fe Community College student (game name: Delhya). "You can pretend to be someone else for a while. It's like being in a living book."
In Gainesville, she said, 40 to 60 people often show up for each game. Not all come to ditch. Some prefer learning about the past and enjoy the role-playing aspect of the game better than the fighting. These folks, pinned with a name of indeterminate origin, are the "flurbs."
Being a flurb
Fifty-four year-old Carol Warren, the oldest Lost Woods member, is a flurb. Yet even she originally got into the game four years ago to ditch.
"I got involved when my son was into it," said Warren (game name: Esquire Eve-lyn). "He kept poking me with a handmade sword until I finally picked up a sword myself and hit him back - and oh, my god, it was so much fun!"
But now, like all good flurbs, she has become intrigued with how people in medieval and ancient times lived. During a recent Lost Woods game, she wore a handmade, purple-and-green kimono - a reflection of her latest interest in medieval Asia - and sat on the sidelines at a picnic table. She worked quietly wadding up countless rubber bands, then encasing them in cloth to form a grapefruit-sized ball.
"It's a spell ball," she said, a weapon players in battle can hurl at each other. "The person who gets hit with it would be turned into some kind of bush or tree."
Kilpatrick, meanwhile, filled her homemade quiver (created from a blue-jeans leg) with foam-tipped arrows.
"You die a lot, and you die quickly," she said of being an archer, "but I can intimidate a lot of people. They think I'm going to shoot them, so they stay away from me."
Then she headed onto the playing field where the ditch monkeys prepared to choose teams.
Druid or monk?
In a battle, two teams are formed, and one plays against the other until the battle is won. The team captains alternate picking teammates just like kids on a playground.
"We're going to try and kill them," McLeod said of his team's strategy. "Right off the bat, we're trying to get rid of their healer" because healers can revive players who have been hurt.
"Lay on!" someone cried, and the battle began.
To an observer, it was chaos. People in tunics darted here and there, menacing each other with padded sticks. Some engaged in sword fights. The "thawack, thawack" of people being smacked with foam weapons served as the battle's soundtrack, punctuated by cries of "Fire ball!" and "Flame arrow!" and "By the power of Nature, I warp that shield!"
"Are you playing a druid?" a player yelled.
"I told you like eight times, man," another yelled back, "I'm a monk!"
Eventually, McLeod trudged off the field.
"I'm shattered," he said. "That means I'm dead and out of the game."
As other players were killed, they joined him at Warren's picnic table. There, they rummaged through backpacks, retrieved snacks and cold bottles of water and admired their lone flurb's spell-ball handiwork.
"That's the great thing about this game, which is really almost a sport," said Warren, who longs for the day when more flurbs join the Barony of the Lost Woods. "There's something for everyone, and everyone can play. It's wonderful fun."
This article originally appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat on April 25th, 2004. It is reprinted here without permission since permission costs $500. We provide a link to the original before presenting the article and derive no revenue from any source by posting it here.
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