LARP Harder

By Shane Danaher

Curious why one would spend a summer going all William Wallace on fellow dorkwads, and a little bit interested to see what that looks like, I lit out for Chaos Wars in Hailey, Idaho. Drawing close to 500 attendants, Chaos Wars is the Christmas, Kwanza, Easter, Yom Kippur, and Boxing Day of the Belegarth calendar. Participants quit jobs, break up with girlfriends, and hitchhike across multiple states in order to spend the hottest week of the summer camping at a horse ranch and participating in a watered-down facsimile of the battle scenes from Lord of the Rings.

While similar Live Action Role Playing (“LARP”-ing) festivals take place throughout North America (VICE covered a notable Quebecois scuffle last October), Chaos Wars outdoes its contemporaries both by dint of its scale and predilection for honest-to-God violence.

Attendants at Chaos Wars practice Belegarth, which is one of several LARPing subspecies that spun off from the Society for Creative Anachronism in the mid-70s. With a (relatively) lighter emphasis on role-playing than its contemporaries, and a well-publicized love for foam-sword-based violence, Belegarth is probably the most hard-assed activity you can participate in while dressed as an elf. People who are into Belegarth actually rankle at that term “LARPer,” and insist that what they’re doing qualifies as sport. Other LARPers refer to them derisively as “stick jocks.”

While for most of the year those interested in practicing Belegarth confine their activities to public parks and university quads, Chaos Wars affords them a chance to unleash 12 months’ worth of pent-up oddity in a weeklong orgy of sweat and wrath.

The festival takes place at Silver Bell Horse Ranch, a generously loaned, gorgeous acreage just outside of Hailey, Idaho. A resort town with a population of 8,000 (whose claims to fame include being the birthplace of Ezra Pound), Hailey’s reaction to Chaos Wars ranges from discomfort to cautious amusement. The economic sectors given the greatest boost by Chaos Wars paint a representative picture of its attendants: People at Chaos Wars buy lots of booze and lots of cake. So great is their lust for these items that the Albertson’s in Hailey prepares a yearly glut of medieval-themed pastries and the town’s sole liquor store doubles its stock in anticipation of the event.

When I rolled up to Chaos Wars’ greeting tent at mid-afternoon on the fourth day of the festival, the warlock who greeted me was already five beers deep and promptly announced his intention to head further onward into his drunken explorations. He shared these traits with most of the people who eagerly helped me set up my campsite and deck me out in “garb,” which consisted of a homemade tunic and stridently patterned hakama pants.

Seeing as I arrived too late in the day to catch any actual fighting, I set off on a search for someone interesting to talk to, which led me quickly to Bacchus.

A goateed man wearing green body paint and a black kilt, Bacchus informed me that his costume was meant to indicate that he was a “Goblin Merchant.” Among other things, Bacchus had distinguished himself by having traveled the longest distance to attend the festival. Last year, while stationed in Afghanistan with the Army Reserves, he requested a week of leave, then hopped a plane out of Kuwait and traveled 17,000 miles to central Idaho in order to paint himself with green food coloring and smack the living shit out of his friends with a foam claymore. This task completed, he drove to Boise Airport and hooked a flight back to the sandbox.

He wasn’t the only one there who protects our country for a living--I ran into at least a half-dozen US servicemen/women at Chaos Wars and was told that there were even more in attendance. A particularly intimidating fighter who went by the highly appropriate sobriquet “Sampson” worked as a Navy SEAL when not trafficking in the world of fantasy combat. This year, Sampson and his partner took top honors at Chaos Wars’ two-on-two fighting tournament, because of course they did.

Chaos Wars included several such sub-tournaments, but the festival didn’t live up to its namesake until Saturday, at which point most of its able-bodied attendants took to an empty horse pasture for a single “epic” battle in which shit got sufficiently real. Ever victim to their weakness for pageantry, the festival’s organizers selected “Crusaders vs. Monsters” as the theme for this year’s Final Battle, apparently unaware of or untroubled by the implied conflation of Muslims with “monsters.”

For the most part, everyone’s energies during the “final battle” were devoted to sorting out the logistical clusterfuck inherent in conducting a 500-person skirmish governed entirely by the honor code. With foam axes, arrows, and swords threatening damage from every direction, not to mention the instant death that awaited anyone who set foot outside of a “castle” demarcated by lines of string on the ground, figuring out what in the holy hell was going on became a near impossibility.

As the “crusaders” and “monsters” fought each other in what looked like a quarter-mile rugby scrum, a dust cloud rose into the 95-degree heat, making the direct sunlight even more unbearable. Grass clinging to their jerkins and grease paint running in sweat lines down their faces, “dead” combatants shuffled to the side of the battle and crowded spare patches of shade, gasping to stave off heat stroke. 

Despite the temperatures, suffocating costumes, and below-average levels of physical fitness, not a single combatant passed out or vomited. One guy who faintly resembled Andre the Giant suffered a concussion scare, but the paramedics who materialized on the scene soon declared him in good health.

By afternoon’s end, the Crusaders had emerged victorious. The Monsters insisted that widespread cheating took place, apparently forgetting that an army of the Lord is justified in using any means to achieve victory.

Though de facto disqualified from many of Chaos Wars’ events since I didn’t belong to an established “Realm,” “Unit,” or “Banner Group” (the differentiation among those three things is too byzantine to address here), I also declined a couple invitations to take active part in the fighting, at least in part because Belegarth fighters contend with a stunning level of physical abuse. In addition to the aforementioned threats of heat stroke and minor brain injury, fighters overflowed with stories of blown knees, separated ribs and rolled ankles. After one battle, a ropey figure of Third World skinniness wandered to the side of the pitch and delivered the following revelation: “Both of my arms just went numb. That last hit must have pinched a nerve in my spine.”

So great is Belegarth’s love for a good fight that the sport forbids the use of on-field “magic,” permitted in other variations of LARP-ing. Chaos Wars’ sole dalliance with the supernatural came in the form of the “Wizard’s Council,” which was also the event’s only successful employment of irony. Dressed in thrift store robes and fake beards cut from plastic grocery bags, the Council’s half-dozen members took enthusiastic part in what they called DARP-ing—Drunk-Assed Role Playing.

Composed of the “jock-iest” (for lack of a better term) members of the Belegarth world, the Council spent the week furtively pissing on the outskirts of public gatherings and tripping over itself while drunkenly trying to cast “spells” against imagined foes. The Council’s watershed moment came at 2 AM on Thursday, when word spread through camp that two feet of rain was expected before morning. Already plowed on a mixture of vodka and raspberries that they called “Falcon’s Blood,” the Council took it upon itself to cast an “anti-rain spell.”

In service of this end, the “wizards” howled and tripped over one another in the middle of an empty horse pasture for a few minutes, after which everyone forgot what it was they were supposed to be doing and wandered off. By the next morning the Council was nursing a genocidal hangover and the rain clouds hovering ominously above Hailey had dissipated, leaving not so much as a trace.

Almost everyone that I talked with at Chaos Wars insisted that they considered everyone there “family,” and the event indeed felt like the world’s most sartorially ambitious reunion. Attendants ranged in age from salt-and-pepper bearded OGs to kids who were hauled there by enthusiastic and unintentionally cruel parents. One couple went so far as to slather its infant in green body paint.

I was there for three days, during which I witnessed a wedding ceremony. On Friday, both lathered in poisonous shades of green, Rumbeard, dressed like Geoffrey Rush in Pirates of the Caribbean, and Fangestra, wearing a dress of pastry-colored pink, sanctified their relationship in a curious form of matrimony. Taking the marital subtext of property exchange to its logical extreme, a “slaver” hauled the bride to the altar, then sold her to the groom for the price of two barrels of huckleberries. The proceedings then gave way to an exchange of self-written vows. Religiously wary and indulgently sentimental, these nuptials might have resembled their civilian equivalent, had the bride and groom not been painted green.

This weird mix of self-abashed goofiness and stone-faced sobriety was typical of Chaos Wars. Everybody there had a refreshing sense of humor about their own lack of cool, but at crucial moments tended to lapse into the nerd’s wrathful protection of its chosen domain.

Take the case of Forkbeard, a fighter who made Chaos Wars’ strongest bid for outright physical intimidation. Upwards of six feet tall, with a bouncer’s muscular gut and facial hair even more insane than his namesake suggests, Forkbeard went into battle bedecked in a gladiator’s helmet, along with matching gauntlets, leather-plated armor, and green body paint. He wielded a foam-covered spear with enough force to knock over a grown man, which he did several times in pitched battles with similarly clad pugilists, all of whom gushed sweat as if it were being wrung from their bodies by enormous hands.

During the heat of the Final Battle, Forkbeard stomped to the side of the pitch and tore off his helmet. He looked like an unhinged Viking.

“I’m not going back out there!” he yelled.

A bystander: “What’s up? You hurt?”

“I’m not going back out there if people are gonna keep cheating. It’s bullshit. People aren’t taking their hits.”

He stripped a couple more pieces of armors and stalked off, sullenly waving off sympathizers and airing a string of maledictions. The mighty warrior, done in by a bunch of cheaters.

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