Game of Dorks: Inside the World of Medieval LARPing

There are people who like Khaleesi and her dragons. And then there are people who really, really like Khaleesi and her dragons.

There are people who like Khaleesi and her dragons. And then there are people who really, really like Khaleesi and her dragons.

Photographed for Maxim by Rebecca Greenfied | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

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Beneath a low November sun, two armies of men outfitted with chain mail, kite-shaped shields, and horsehair-tufted helmets squint from opposite ends of a muddy pasture. The assemblages, each of which boasts more than 100 warriors, bristle with 10-foot spears and wooden clubs.

With a collective roar, they charge over stone walls and dry brambles and collide with the violent clatter of weapons upon armor. Then the frenzy stops. All watch in silence while a fallen combatant crawls slowly from the scrum to sprawl on a grassy embankment nearby. As the battle resumes, the injured fighter removes his metal helmet to reveal the plump face of a sweaty, bearded man in his 40s. “Probably a torn meniscus,” he says with resignation. “Again.”

This campaign is part of the “100 Minutes War,” a gathering that takes place on a Saturday afternoon in northern New Jersey, roughly an hour’s drive from New York City. The daylong event, which marks the region’s final large-scale melee before the onset of winter, includes a one-on-one combat tournament, tables larded with bland meat pies, and a ceremony in which fighters are awarded scrolls for “displaying great valor.” Some men wear elaborate suits of armor and vests made from thick overlapping leather scales; others settle for pj bottoms, filthy Ugg boots, and helmets that resemble the reservoir tips on condoms. As beer-bellied dudes with auburn goatees address one another as “your excellency,” women in heavy shawls stitch embroidery and analyze the battle with esoteric community jargon: “You can’t rhino-hide when you’re airborne,” giggles one hen-shaped woman. To paraphrase the great philosopher Marsellus Wallace, these people will get medieval on your ass.

Photographed for Maxim by Rebecca Greenfied | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

For members of the Society for Creative Anachronism—an international organization devoted to medieval reenactment—the phrase “weekend warrior” means more than indulging in an extra shot of tequila during happy hour. The idea is to experience life as Europeans did in the Middle Ages by manner of authentic dress, language, art, dining, and hand-to-hand combat. The organization is gun-shy about press, in part because of stereotypes that members are fantasy geeks and adults playing Dungeons & Dragons. Jokes about clerics with boots of invisibility write themselves.

Most people don’t have a set of armor in their living room sitting next to a spinning wheel next to an illumination that their friend drew on vellum,” says Crystal Rogers, a high school math teacher who fought in the 100 Minutes War. “It’s just different from having a bunch of golf clubs,” she says of her hobby.

Photographed for Maxim by Rebecca Greenfied | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

But over the past decade, cultural landmarks like The Hobbit and HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones have helped transform mass audiences into sudden fantasy enthusiasts. Chris Kluwe, the outspoken punter on the Minnesota Vikings, publicly broadcasts his love for World of Warcraft and his troll character. And collections from New York Fashion Week in February included gothic leather harnesses from Prabal Gurung and scaly, armorlike patterns from Rebecca Taylor. In short, we’re in the throes of medieval fever (and we’re not talking the black death). “It’s becoming more mainstream,” says Scott Farrell, the SCA spokesman who goes by the name Sir Guillaume de Belgique. “When The Lord of the Rings came out a decade ago, that was the milestone that made it clear this group that was once a subculture—the Comic-Con crowd—they’re the folks who are now soccer moms and working dads.” 

As a subset of the live-action role-playing community—known as LARPers—members of the SCA are known as Boffers, due to all the pummeling. “The appeal of LARPing has to do with the ability to just cut loose and be somebody else and assume that character without inhibitions,” says Wayne Melnick, director of Dragon Con, an annual convention that runs games with vampire, steampunk, and gaslight themes. “And I don’t mean in a hedonistic way,” he adds.

Photographed for Maxim by Rebecca Greenfied | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Using broad strokes, the SCA brings together history buffs, former Dungeons & Dragons aficionados, science fiction fans, computer programmers, and ex-military personnel. “Everyone here has a level of nerdiness,” says Baron Joseph Harcourt, a wide-set bruiser from Philadelphia with brush-cut blond hair and a (real) nasty scar slithering up his neck. “But when you get on the field, it’s dead even.” He was introduced to the SCA seven years ago while touring in a hardcore punk band. “You think this is make-believe and this is fantasy,” says Harcourt, discussing the difference between their battles and those of the more whimsical LARPs. “But there’s no magic. You beat people strictly on how good you are. Where else can you get a 50-year-old man to come out and fucking take you apart? It’s kind of scary. This motherfucker is going to kill you.” 

The SCA was founded in 1965, springing from a medieval lit class at UC Berkeley that included future science fiction writers Piers Anthony and Poul Anderson. It has grown into an international organization boasting around 30,000 members, with events held from Fort Myers to Ludwigstein Castle in Witzenhausen, Germany. Its world is divided into 19 kingdoms, like Atenveldt (Arizona) and Drachenwald (Europe, Africa, and the Middle East). The group is most popular in North America. “We have a connection with that culture, but not direct contact with it,” says Sir Guillaume. “In Europe it’s a little different when you can go down the street and there’s a castle.” 

Photographed for Maxim by Rebecca Greenfied | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Participants adopt names that sound more threatening or regal than their government handles (Schalk Bloodaxe, for example, is surely more likely to sever your jugular than dwell in an accounts-receiving cubicle). 

The most significant SCA event is the Pennsic War, a 10,000-person gathering that occurs every August on a campground in Pennsylvania. Eyes widen as participants describe the sound generated by stampeding warriors. “It’s just like the movies,” says one veteran, likening the combat to a scene in Braveheart. The two-week-long festival includes fencing, target archery, equestrian games, hound coursing, and seminars on medieval history. Still, the immersive atmosphere makes some leery. “There is a tension between academic historians and SCA folks,” says Laura Morreale, Ph.D., associate director of the Center of Medieval Studies at Fordham University. “It took me 10 years to get my degree, and there’s a notion that they just have to go out and live it and it’s more real. But from a business perspective, we need people who are passionate about history.”

Photographed for Maxim by Rebecca Greenfied | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

While the interest in medieval times provides a veneer of intellectualism, the SCA is really about beating one another on the head with sticks. The basic “sword” is a three-foot wooden rattan with a guard around the handle. Another popular weapon is a spear with a padded bulge at the end. Combat is governed by the honor system: The person who gets hit decides if the blow was powerful enough to count as a damaging strike (refusal to acknowledge quality strikes is the aforementioned sin of “rhino-hiding”). If someone is whacked in the leg, he must fight from his knees. When killed by a shot to the head or chest, players retreat to a remote area on the battlefield to be “resurrected.” Participants are protected by armor, but painful blows to the armpits, ribs, hands, and legs are common. It’s all impressively noisy and violent.

In SCA battles, winners and losers are determined via combat. By compari­son, other reenactment societies are more interested in historical accuracy. “Once we set up camp, everyone changes into period clothing,” says Terry Shelton, commander of Longstreet’s Corps, a Civil War reenactment group that will participate at the 150th commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg this summer. They discourage modern eyewear and require appropriate clothing, military equipment, and food. “Sometimes someone will break scenario,” he says. “That makes your serious reenactor feel cheated. That can really kind of ruin things.”

While there are plenty of lumbering oafs on SCA battlefields, some do take swordplay seriously. Jaye Brooks Sr., for example, spends his days as a corporate senior project manager. Off the clock he’s known as Lucan and revered as one of the most feared warriors in the entire organization. He began participating in the SCA in 1981 as a teenager and now runs the Knights Hall, a training facility in New Hampshire. “Armor has come so far since those days,” he says. “Back then, you’d have 10 guys wearing old carpets with baseball shin guards and these horrible army helmets with bars welded to them.” According to Brooks, modern fighters have adopted tactics from martial arts and boxing, and quality armor is now easily available online. 

Photographed for Maxim by Rebecca Greenfied | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

Still, not all injuries are preventable: When Brooks went to get his hand X-rayed, the doctor said it appeared as if it had been broken 17 times. “I can only remember three,” Brooks says.

There are some female fighters—a few even recognized as knights—but most women involved in the SCA hunker along the sidelines. The image of a flaxen-haired beer wench bursting out of her bodice is inaccurate here: The typical participant is cloaked in frumpy woolen layers and wears glasses. They’re usually “consorts,” accompanying men to fights and acting as caregivers. “Women are supportive,” says Jennifer Guyton (also known as Baroness Cateline la Broderesse, she’s a science and history teacher from Kingston, New York in real life). “We get men drinks or fix a buckle on their armor.” And, yes, she adds, “People think we’re weird.” 

When most folks hear about swordfights and armor-clad knights in contemporary America, they think of the Medieval Times restaurant chain. But SCA is the diametric opposite: They’re people with normal jobs who engage in the Middle Ages lifestyle as a hobby. “Our cast is people who do it for a living,” says Ricardo Salazar, marketing and sales director for Medieval Times. He laughed when asked if employees ever wore armor in their free time. “Sure, it’s a way of life because they’re getting paid for it. I compare it to being a star athlete. It’s the adulation they get, making a kid smile.”

For many in the SCA, though, the hobby bleeds into all elements of social life. “You kind of get addicted to it,” says Vienna, an older woman who came into the organization after working at a Renaissance fair. Now her family hosts tournaments on their front yard during the summer, with curious neighbors watching the fighting from lawn chairs. “People just stop their cars in the road and gawk at us,” she says. “‘The crazy medieval people are at it again.’” 

While SCA members are eccentric, the Internet has raised the bar for peculiarity to absurdist heights. And men in armor hitting each other with wooden swords are far less disturbing than plushie conventioneers and amputee pornographers. Yes, it’s a little much when you ask for a drink and someone replies, “I am not the keeper of the water.” But there’s a strain of good-humored goofiness and a love for the quirky, like-minded community that runs through all the proceedings. Besides, the endorphin release from fighting seems no different than that from playing flag football, pickup hoops, or any other adult athletic endeavor.

After the 100 Minutes War has finished, the weary fighters pull off their helmets and exchange shoulder-pounds and bearish bro-hugs. Man musk hangs in the air. Sterling De La Rosa still has an adrenaline high and speaks like an athlete delivering a postgame interview. He describes how he assisted an opponent who had gotten hung up on a tree during the battle. “It doesn’t matter what side you’re on,” he whoops. “They’re all my brothers.” 

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