DERWOOD – Gathered around the back of a mammoth silver minivan, a father and son from Rockville, two Montgomery College students and a father of three from Wheaton prepare for battle.
They lace homemade leather boots and strap on armored leather vests. Newcomers’ dark blue tunics are belted with cloth sashes before weapons are assigned.
The men and women are participants in a game known as LARP, or Live Action Role Playing. In this version, which disdains magical healing and the like in battle, called Dagorhir, players invent fantasy-based identities, dress in medieval battle clothes and fight with foam-padded weapons in parks and fields all over the country. Dagorhir has chapters in 32 states and Puerto Rico.
Realm Aratari embraces participants in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Mike Boone, 43, of Springfield, Va., president of Aratari, says he has witnessed the group’s population grow considerably since he joined 24 years ago.
“I like to say that what we do out here is a cross between ‘Gladiator,’ ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Braveheart,'” said Boone, whose realm identity is Erekose, head of the Gestiguiste unit.
“When I first heard of this, I thought, ‘No way, you get to fight with swords and get in character?’ It’s a great release.”
David Vierling of Wheaton, or Graymeal, is the leader of the Guard unit, a group of combatants within the Aratari realm. On this Saturday morning, Graymeal readies his unit for the tournaments.
His minivan is packed with more than 20 foam weapons that range from a 2-foot-long ax to a 10-foot spear. He unloads them, explaining their functions to newcomers while reserving a separate cache for himself.
“These ones are just for me,” he says with a grin.
Vierling is the unquestioned leader of the Guard, constantly sought out for advice. A 46-year-old father of three, he works during the week as a manager for the Internal Revenue Service.
He says he gets a charge from winning in the tournaments. “When you win, those people have to fall over ‘dead,'” he said of his opponents. “So there’s a psychological boost that comes from that. … You didn’t just win a game of Scrabble.”
For a moment, he added, “You’re Conan, or some other hero out of legend.”
Dagorhir members like Vierling go though the week as students, physicists, gas station attendants and police officers and range in age from 15 to 61. On the weekends, they don tunics and metal armor and assume names like Erekose, Maggot, Kappychristopherous and Novariel.
They fight along squad lines formed among friends, bolstered in Internet chat rooms and hardened on the battlefield.
These days, Vierling’s guard boasts more rookies than sworn members, evidence of the game’s growing popularity.
“People of all ages do this, and they come from as far as an hour and a half (away) to do it,” Vierling said of the games.
“One of the greatest things about this game is that on the field, these people are your worst enemies, and then when you’re off the field, they’re your best friends.”
Saturday’s games differed from the usual format, pitting individual fighters against one another and hosting small-scale unit battles rather than the more common big team throw-downs. Most members classify themselves in broad categories: as ogres, elves, Romans, Celts, Vikings, orcs, goblins or maidens.
Some watch. Most fight. They all know how to role play.
Sword to the leg? Drop to one knee.
Axed in the arm? Hold the arm behind your back.
Speared in the back? You’re a goner. (And you better make it look good.)
Twenty guard members fight on this day. Five, including 22-year-old Montgomery College student Inna Stair, watch and socialize on the sidelines.
“I originally started doing Dagorhir because my boyfriend was in it, but I’ve always been into the Middle Ages and dressing up in costume, so it’s perfect,” Stair said.
Members credit the increased participation to recent national media exposure. The comedy feature film “Role Models,” released in November, included a teen actor in a supporting role who was involved in a Live Action Role Playing game similar to Dagorhir.
In January, Dagorhir was featured on the Discovery Channel show “Wreckreation Nation.”
Perhaps the game’s best local ambassador is a menacing behemoth known as Maggot.
Maggot’s armor consists of metal scraps found on the battle field and sewn into a leather vest.
His mask is made of ragged white leather, accented with a real bull ring through the nose.
His 8-foot sword slays Celts, Romans and Vikings alike on this Saturday morning.
Take off the mask, and you’ll meet Christopher Marselas, an animal care technician from Calvert County.
“Why do Dagorhir?” Marselas asks. “I’m a very aggressive person, and it’s one way to take out the aggressions of the week upon people.
“Plus, everyone out here is my best friend in the world, and I can stomp them into the mud!”