Throughout history bards have sung of worlds where the heroic rise to face the machinations of villains in spectacular contests that alter the courses of history. This is not one of those tales.
There are hidden worlds out there. Even in a medium-sized city like Louisville, things beyond your ken exist around every corner. Maybe it’s a nightclub with a huge BDSM subculture. Maybe it’s a bird watching club whose members’ lives revolve around finding some kind of spotted warbling something or the other. Maybe it’s the cleaning staff’s break room, hidden deep in the bowels of a hospital complex.
There are hidden worlds. And some of them are magic.
Many people have at least heard of live action role-playing, or LARPing, but most people don’t really know anything about it. The public perception is based on mediocre movies, or silly YouTube clips. If you actually step into a game, you find out that it isn’t silly, or mediocre.
It’s fucking epic.
ForgeHall, or Louisville LARP, is a wholly original, fully-immersive LARP that runs four or five full weekends out of the year. Set in a world besieged by filth and corruption of a cosmic and unknowable nature, ForgeHall is a game where the heroes lost, and those left fight for survival and search for meaning.
Last May, my wife and I headed up to Glenn Wood Hills Camp and Retreat Center to get a little glimpse of the action. Many LARP events are a full weekend. You go up on Friday. “Lay on,” which means start, is around 10 p.m., and you play until Sunday morning. Players are in character the entire time. We were just swinging by for an hour or so to get a sense of the scene, maybe snap a picture or two.
When we got to Glenn Wood Hills, it was weirdly quiet. There were a ton of parked cars, but we couldn’t see anyone. It was an almost farcically beautiful day, the sky a deep and playful blue, and the grass sort of overeager with its green.
Then an elf, a couple of warriors and what looked like a mummy came running out of nowhere, crossing our field of vision. Before we could even really register what we were seeing, they disappeared again.
We wandered around, feeling lost, like interlopers. Finally, a guy in a white headband approached us. The white headbands are important, a signal to the players that the wearer is not in play.
“Are you the reporter?” asked white headband. I answered in the affirmative. He handed us headbands, and escorted us to Monster Hall.
Imagine every orc or ghost or whatever you’ve ever killed in a video game. Now imagine they were just 15 people, rapidly changing costume every time you dispatched them, and then running back into the field of battle, providing the players with a constant stream of conflict and plot points. These people are what you call non-playing characters, or NPCs. Being an NPC is actually a great jumping-on place for newbies. You don’t need a costume, you don’t need to know much about the world, and being a NPC usually costs a quarter of the price that players pay. For first time NPCs, it’s free.The NPCs are the minor bad guys, the major villains, the messengers and every other “extra” in the shared fantasy story the LARPers are creating. At Louisville LARP, the place where those 15 people hang out is Monster Hall. It’s one of those dormitory-style buildings you find at campgrounds. Four beds in a room and one big community restroom.
Inside Monster Hall, my contact, Geoffrey Runge, is busily sending out messages and making snap-second decisions that could end fictional lives. Runge is a member of the campaign committee.
Each LARP is run by a campaign committee. It’s a group of people who meet regularly, sometimes as often as once a week, to plan an event. ForgeHall’s CC is also the group of people who own ForgeHall. It’s a business, an insured LLC.
Various members of the committee are all over the campground, making food, running modules and even playing important NPC entities, who are used to deliver plots to the players via messages, monologues, cryptic runes and who knows what. A module is a piece of story, roughly analogous to a scene in a movie or a level in a video game. It usually involves some fighting, some problem solving and some plot revelation.
Runge can barely get a full sentence in while talking to me without getting interrupted.
“It’s all encoding information,” Runge says. “If you’re running around, playing this game, or any other game, that experience gets laid down in your brain with those emotions all keyed in, and that.”
Then, a crisis arises. Preston Bodine, another CC, has too many monsters in his mod, and he hasn’t come back from the other side of the lake yet. Nick Berryman, a quiet but intense CC, needs more monsters … and anyone that can hold a sword.
Before I know it, I’m in a dirty mask, standing in a field, armed with red foam swords as a group of players are running at me.
“Two edge!” yelled one as he hit me.
“Three edge,” howled another.
“Three blunt,” I hear, as another attacker wallops me.
I have six health, so it doesn’t take long for me to die.
Berryman, in a white headband, is running the module. He’s like a narrator and a referee, his voice icy and intense as he answers players’ questions and fills in the gaps in reality around the foam props and make-up-wearing Golems. He keeps resurrecting me and sending me back in to die, again and again. I’m cut down ten times in five minutes.
As I head back to Monster Hall, I realize the two hours I had planned for researching this article have flown by. I already know I have to come back. I have to dig deeper, I have to know more.
I tell myself it’s just to finish getting details for the article.
I catch a ride with Runge to the campaign committee meeting. We’re the first people to show up at Kyle Radcliffe’s house. He’s another CC. His house is a normal split level ranch in southern Indiana. We made small talk while the rest of the CC straggled in. Most of the guys have families and jobs, and it’s tough to make the time every week, but imperative this close to an event. The next weekend of ForgeHall was just two weeks away.
When the team was fully assembled, we headed down to the basement. There is a train table and a ton of toys, but step through a door and there is a dark stained and shining eight-person table.
There are bookshelves full of role playing rule books. The shelves are also home to several high quality dragon statues, three fiberglass lightsabers and one small sword.
The nerdiness gets heavy fast, but first the CC spent 20 minutes talking about truck rentals and finances. As a business, ForgeHall manages to break even, but it takes careful marshaling of resources.
Finally after the numbers stuff gets out of the way, it’s time to start planning modules.
People think of LARPing and might only imagine fighting with foam swords. But watching the guys lob ideas back and forth, it’s clear that ForgeHall is more like like a giant shared fantasy novel. The CC knows every player, knows every player’s character and does its best to figure out what will make that single person happy and excited. “The whole point is to create a framework for people’s imaginations to work collaboratively,” explains Runge.
The CC also has to fit each individual character into an overall tapestry that will take years to fully weave. ForgeHall is projected to be a six-year story, and, at the end, the characters will fix their broken world. Or they’ll screw it up worse.
After the CC had gone over every person — including NPCs — planned prop-making days and restated truck-packing plans, the group relaxed and started talking about past events, other LARPs long since ended. It’s like a family getting together at the holidays, rolling out cherished memories.
“You’ve just witnessed a quintessential LARP moment,” said Runge. “The war stories.”
Runge seemed disinterested in telling stories, but Radcliffe whispers an aside that Runge had the best war story of all.
Finally the meeting breaks down and they all go back to their real lives, tired but eager for the next weekend event, when they get to put all this planning into action. I’m eager too, and I realize I’m getting really excited about my impending overnight visit at ForgeHall.
“So the stories that are interesting to me are stories that hit people on an emotional level,” Runge says as we drive a truck full of props, sets and food to the campsite in Indiana.
There is a steady rain on the truck ride. I’m grilling Runge for more details, the cosmology of ForgeHall, the players, the past. And I ask him about his war story.
Back in the day, playing a game called Wildlands West, Runge was a player, not a CC. As Unkaa the Minotaur, he want through a period when he put a lot of time and energy into LARPing and felt less and less at home among the other players. “I played this character for years, and I was worn out.”
After a frustrating weekend, Unkaa died on the battle field. Every LARP has a resurrection system, which allows players to return to play after a death. But, there are limits to how many times you can come back and characters risk what they call “perma death.” Unkaa had died a lot over the years: “So I die, and lying there at night in wet grass, I think, this is it, I’m gonna perm. I go to death’s realm, and I draw the black bead.”
Death’s realm was a sectioned-off area where a player would go to try to use the resurrection system to come back to life. Drawing a white bead would have saved Unkaa, but he had drawn black.
“And then [Death] says, ‘Wait, you feel something else reaching toward you, to pull you back. Do you want to reach out to it?”
In Wildlands, part of the resurrection system involved fellow players coming to edge of death’s realm and calling to a character to bring them back. Normally one or two characters would show up to call a spirit back.
Runge hears the low susurrous of voices from outside, and Death ushers Unkaa out of his realm. Instead of two LARPers calling Unkaa back, it’s forty.
“This spirit is weak,” said Death, “and needs your help.”
The assembled LARPers, give money, potions and spells to Death. They chant Unkaa’s name. At last, Death allows Unkaa to return to the land of the living.
“It’s dark,” remembered Runge, “but there are Christmas lights strewn around this cabin, so I can see all these faces, rows of people. They all cheered.”
In the truck, the rain from the window was projected on Runge’s face. Tears were in his eyes, as he neared the end of his war story.
“I felt totally loved,” he finished.
With the sky overcast, we unload the truck and I do my best to keep up with the flurry of activity. Runge, Radcliffe, Berryman and all the members of the CC are functioning at 120 percent. They set up the cenotaph, the tavern, the actual ForgeHall, unload all the food, stock Monster Hall with costumes and weapons and build their version of Death’s Realm.
Players start trickling in. Some from Louisville, some from Indiana, some from further out. For a weekend like this, it’s not uncommon for people to travel from around the region.
And everyone is already in costume. Back in the truck, Runge says it’s the costumes that scare a lot of people off. “What people don’t get, when they freak out about wearing a costume, is that everybody else is too. And they want you to wear a costume. They are excited about your fucking costume, because your costume means that their costume has greater meaning.”
Runge also says that newcomers shouldn’t worry their costume won’t be good enough. “No one has to have a better costume either. Everybody is there and trying to build a positive atmosphere that reinforces it for everyone. And when people come out, they get that, a switch gets hit in them.”
Before I know it, it’s 10 p.m., and the game begins.
Throughout the night, I play a range of low-power thugs and monsters. I’m cut down more times than I can count, and I’m never in Monster Hall for more than a few minutes before it’s time to go out again. My favorite character is a mercenary captain. In my head, I name him Arlo Flynn, and as I patrol around a treasure box hidden in the dark, I sketch in his backstory: a working man from a poor family. Not cruel, but very willing to kill when the need arises. He dies with a sword in his back at the top of a nameless hill. He falls, and he rolls to the bottom, limp and lifeless. A dark elf checks his pockets for gold or scraps of information.
All the outdoor action happens in the rain and the dark. There are a few bright flood lights around the campground. The tavern, the ForgeHall and the cenotaph are all lit, but most of the battlegrounds are pitch black. Messages are delivered under the cover of night, and the shroud covering the event adds to the illusion.
The various modules usually only involve a small group of players, four or five, but a couple of times battles break out closer to the tavern and the cabins, and they quickly blow up into huge melees, with twenty players and most of the NPCs.
We play through the night. I take charge of keeping coffee brewed and am hailed as a hero.
In the wee hours of the morning, the final climactic battle of the evening breaks out, on the far side of the campground, all the way past the lake and the baseball diamond.
After entering fights with 3 health or 5 health, I’m suddenly given 20 health and 20 armor. Even better, there is a one-damage cap on any attacks. Where is your four edge sword now, little warrior?
The battle is glorious. The NPCs cut down players who have killed us so many times over the course of the evening. Sure, they’ll resurrect in the morning, when play resumes, and the point of NPCing isn’t to win — it’s to help give the players a good experience. But those battles that feel un-winnable to the players, right up until the moment they triumph over us evil beings, that’s part of what makes the experience.
I’m soaked by the time I make it back to Monster Hall. I finally take off my boots and climb into bed at 5 a.m.
In the morning, it’s back to the real world. The rest of the players and NPCs stay until Sunday, but arts reporters work weekends.
Later, over breakfast, I’m babbling to my wife, telling her about Arlo Flynn and the stained-glass golem and the battle out past the baseball diamond, and I realize, I’m doing the thing. I’m telling war stories, feeling emotions based on made-up experiences.
In my memories, it’s all starting to look far more realistic than the foam swords and face paint ever could in real life. LARPers don’t have CGI or Weta Workshop; they have something more powerful, more beautiful than any Hollywood special effects team. They have their imaginations, and they have each other.
I pull up my calendar app on my phone, and quietly block out the next ForgeHall weekend, and type in all caps — LARP.
(ForgeHall”s last weekend of the season is November 20-22. First time NPC’s play for free. For sign up information go to http://louisvillelarp.com)