John J.P. O’Leary, right, whose game character is “Fen’Harel,” clashes with John “Nojdivad” Kirwin at the annual “Feast of Fools” on Catoctin Mountain outside Thurmont, Md. (Rob Garver/For The Washington Post)

The air was thick with arrows, and the forest echoed with the shouts of battle when the bard spotted a howling barbarian charging toward him. Realizing his tiny dagger would be no match for his opponent’s sword, the bard shouted his spell over the cries of the wounded: “Death makes thee terrified! Death makes thee terrified! Death makes thee terrified!”

The barbarian — looking more annoyed than terrified — shouted “Terrified!” and retreated across a field strewn with javelins, shields and other detritus of medieval fantasy combat.

That scene and others like it played out repeatedly in the Maryland woods two weekends ago as participants in the Live Action Role Play (LARP) game Amtgard gathered for the annual “Feast of Fools” on Catoctin Mountain outside Thurmont, Md.

The event, which drew hundreds of participants from as far away as Canada and Ohio, was organized by the Kingdom of Crystal Groves, the governing authority for about a dozen Amtgard chapters, or “parks,” in the Mid-Atlantic region, itself part of a larger network of kingdoms stretching across the United States.

Dressed in flowing red-and-black monk’s robes, Collister Fahie took a break from practicing his swordplay on the sidelines and said he had driven more than 300 miles from Akron, Ohio, to “get a chance to swing the stick” during the Feast of Fools. His sparring partner, Johni-Ann Sims, wearing pink, purple and yellow jester’s motley, said she had made the trip from Morgantown, W.Va.

In Amtgard, founded in Texas in the 1980s, the weapons are padded, and the rules are complex. Players belong to various classes — bards, wizards, barbarians, archers, warriors, scouts and more — that come with specific abilities and restrictions. Fighters call out when they’ve been struck under a detailed points system that determines when a player “dies.”


Dan “Pulse” McLarty inspects a battle ax before the start of play. (Rob Garver for The Washington Post)

On Saturday, while magic-users rattled through their spells like a bunch of auctioneers on speed, other players stood toe-to-toe, hacking at one another with weapons in “battle games” that pitted teams of dozens of role-players against one another in a chaotic, violent frenzy.

Spread across an open field nearby, other players fought one another in single combat as part of a tournament. Their weapons moved so quickly that often it was only the fighters who could tell when a blow had landed.

Before every event, players serving as “reeves” — a sort of referee — conduct a weapons check to make sure the swords, pikes, arrows and other implements comply with strict safety requirements. Weapon construction varies, but swords are typically fashioned from a graphite golf club shaft encased in dense foam, making them light but surprisingly stiff.

Unlike some other LARP games, such as Darkon or Dagorhir, body contact and grappling are barred in Amtgard, meaning that speed and athleticism are far more important to success than strength. That doesn’t mean the game is perfectly safe, of course. In a Facebook post after the event, one of the organizers reported a larger than normal number of injuries, “including, but not limited to, broken noses, concussions, damaged knees.”

At the Feast of Fools, the bulk of the participants in the battle games were in their 20s and 30s, but there were teenagers (the official rules set 14 as the lower limit for taking part) and players well into middle age.

“We’re a little more family-friendly” than some other LARP organizations, said Alan Lane, who goes by “Arden Dawnseeker” in-game. Lane, 28, who works as a draftsman and martial arts instructor in his nongame life, is serving a six-month term as king of Crystal Groves. “We try to make sure everyone’s welcome,” he said.

Across the United States, 313 active Amtgard chapters collectively draw several thousand participants every week. Locally, the most active are Rising Sun Station in Alexandria, Crystal Groves in Hagerstown, Md., (namesake of the larger Kingdom of Crystal Groves) and Bandit Flats East, in Dover, Del. Each counts dozens of participants every month, according to data collected by Amtgard International, a Colorado-based nonprofit that helps organize the game.

While the combat is the most visible element of Amtgard, the game has a rich and complex structure, which means that as age or injury force players to step away from fighting, many can remain involved by competing in other areas.

Major events such as the Feast of Fools include “Dragonmaster” contests, in which participants submit handcrafted armor, weapons, costumes (“garb” in Amtgard terms), written stories and more to panels of judges.

The construction of garb, arms and armor becomes a labor of love for many in the game. Along the sidelines last weekend, Dan Kropf of Delaware was putting the finishing touches on a ­70-pound set of armor made of hundreds of pieces of 16-gauge steel, laser-cut in what he called a “modified byzantine tombstone” pattern.

And although walking around an Amtgard event can sometimes have the feel of attending a Renaissance Fair, the outfits are far too eclectic to fit into a particular historical period. Players in Japanese samurai-inspired armor rub shoulders with chain-mail-clad barbarians and archers whose gear includes fake cat ears and a long bushy tail.

Everyone involved in the game tells a different story of how they came to it. Lane said he learned about Amtgard at a comics convention in Maryland, where a local group put on a combat demonstration.


Johni-Ann Sims of Parkersburg, W.Va., spars with another player. Sims’s in-game persona is “Eleniel Bjornsdottir.” (Rob Garver for The Washington Post)

Eli McMillian, a student at the University of the District of Columbia, said her first exposure to LARPing was in the 2008 movie “Role Models.” McMillian, 21, who goes by “Kai” in-game, said, “They were making fun of it in the movie, but I thought, ‘That looks cool.’ ”

For Miranda Hoffman, a ­14-year Amtgard veteran who goes by “Sir Shiva,” the connection was through family.

“My brother was doing it, and we picked on him,” said Hoffman, 27, who serves as monarch of the Alexandria-based chapter, Rising Sun Station. “I thought he was the biggest nerd.”

Hoffman’s mother would take her younger brother to a park to watch him play Amtgard, but one weekend, she dropped him off and didn’t hang around. The members of the chapter asked why she had left, and Hoffman’s brother revealed that his mother, raising three children on her own, was spending the weekend trying to move her family into a different home.

“So, next thing we know, about 20 guys show up ready to help her move,” Hoffman said. “She asked what she could do to repay them, and they said all we want is for you guys to come out and give this a fair shot . . . and that’s where it started.”

But if everyone comes to Amtgard by a different route, Hoffman’s story illustrates one of the reasons so many members continue to participate. The game creates a sense of community that is palpable — at an event such as the Feast of Fools, where hundreds gather, and at the smaller gatherings of Rising Sun Station, which meets in Jones Point Park in Alexandria every Sunday afternoon.

“Family is probably the easiest way to explain it,” Hoffman said. “I talk to and hang out with the other members of our park at least once a week outside of Amtgard.”

“People want something to be a part of,” Lane said. “People really grab on to that sense of community and camaraderie, whether it’s helping feed everyone by working in the kitchen or out in the field playing as a wizard.”

The game’s national governing body, the Circle of Monarchs, works hard to establish an atmosphere of acceptance, Lane said. “There is a zero-tolerance policy for any kind of discrimination, by race or sexual orientation or anything else. We’re here to have fun, not to push people away.”


Preparing to meet an attack in a battle game are Damian “Naimad” Hayter, left, Franklin “Carlisle” Garner and Josh “Rellik” Georges. (Rob Garver for The Washington Post)

And that is evident in the crowds that Amtgard events draw. Participants are diverse, not just by race, but by sexuality, gender identity and background.

McMillian, the UDC student, said one reason she was attracted to Amtgard rather than to one of several other LARP organizations across the country was the organization’s insistence on an atmosphere of welcoming and safety. Amtgard has a nationwide code of conduct that applies to every event, and it recently adopted rules regarding online sexual harassment.

Many of the people who gravitate to Amtgard, she said, “might not feel welcome in other places,” adding, “It’s an escape for a lot of people.”

Hang around Amtgard players for a little while, and it’s impossible not to hear the term “nerd” thrown around. But in the long tradition of marginalized groups reclaiming the pejoratives hurled at them, it’s the Amtgarders themselves who use the word to refer to one another.

Dan McLarty, who goes by “Pulse” in the game, even uses it as his pitch to recruit new players at Jones Point on Sundays.

“You get to hit nerds. Who doesn’t like that?” he said, grinning through a bushy brown beard.

But be warned: These nerds hit back.