Warriors picked up speed beneath the oak trees, coming in a rush of broadswords, maces and pikes, shields worked in arcane heraldry. The melee broke into individual combat as helmeted warriors clashed, foam blade to foam blade.
They were charging across a hill in Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park as part of the FanWar live-action role-playing game, or LARP. These games take the myth-making of table-top fantasy games and bring them to life, with players physically portraying the characters they create, often with self-made costumes and props.
Last summer, FanWar summer campers transformed the park into a land beset by a refugee crisis, interacting in character to pursue missions large and small, do battle and negotiate political and moral quagmires. The participants were centaurs, hobbits, fallen angels, orcs and more - but their philosophical quandaries about good, evil and individual responsibility reflected central questions of humanity.
The August plotline centered on an island nation, one of the safer places to be in the fantasy world of Roekron, run by hobbits (some wise, some sneaky, naturally). With wars sweeping across the adjacent continent, fleeing civilians sought refuge on the island. Players found themselves having to decide, FanWar founder Christopher Melville summarized for a visitor, "What do we do? Is this individual safe to admit? Or an evil person?"
A few dozen school-aged participants put in 100 hours of play time or more on this plot, led by college-age leaders who had grown up in the game.
Allison Paley, who serves as a FanWar Game Master after years of character play, was dealing out scenarios to young participants preparing for a market scene. One was tasked with selling food and drink, using as much description as possible. Another young pair was set at odds: They were both to play hobbits, arguing loudly - but one a simulacrum, the other the real hobbit. They were to return for a new challenge when the copy was disbelieved by an onlooker and disappeared.
Game Masters provide guidance and set challenges, and the LARP relies on internal rules of safe, kind play. But the participants - ranging in age from 9 through high school - build the substance of the game themselves, extending a saga of their fantasy world that has been developed in the years since Melville began FanWar in 1995.
"When I got involved in LARP it was like everything I wished were available in video games that I couldn’t do," Paley said of the hands-on creativity involved in getting to "write" the story yourself.
The first LARPs as understood in the modern context began in the late 1970s, but their spirit of improvisational theater, often in semi-public settings, echoes not just childhood make-believe and middle-aged historical re-enactments, but even 17th century commedia dell’arte, with its commingling of scripted and improvised performance.
FanWar’s world is specifically medieval, with swords and spells and mythic creatures that pay tribute to some of the great fantasists of the past century. Battles are only part of a FanWar game, but their uses loom large: Acting out combat is athletic (and exciting); it calls for the design and construction of safe, padded prop weapons that look cool, and the larger context of the war allows for alliances, betrayals and the self-examination of a community at war with itself.
Players make their own decisions for characters as the game evolves - and for child players, the decision-making also includes mastering the rules of FanWar, which include "Take Care of People" - knowing when to pause the game to tend to hurt or frustrated players.
The battles end up bringing a more sober view of war and violence, according to Melville. Role-playing gives participants a chance not just to understand a philosophical concept, but actually try it on in a real(ish)-world setting and see how it plays out. Every casualty is a real person with whom you’ve interacted, and every decision you make affects the community of people you’ll see for the rest of the afternoon, or week, or year, depending on your level of commitment to the LARP.
One middle-school-aged player, known in the game world right now as "Lula," a hobbit who loves storytelling, said she loved getting to develop different characters, with varied personalities and voices, over the course of her four years of LARPing thus far.
"I generally like to play characters that are less useful to the party but are mostly just entertainment," she said. "Another fun thing I do because of LARP is I like to make duct-tape bags and wallets that I use to store my character’s items, gold and character sheets."
What started as an after-school activity in fourth grade has evolved into a twice-weekly tradition that "Lula" describes as her "main creative outlet and hobby," done in a community where she has found close friends.
For more information on FanWar camps, visit fanwar.com.