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Live-action role-playing group Amtgard ramps up recruitment

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Two Amtgardians square off at a tournament — Photo by Jamie Velandra
Two Amtgardians square off at a tournament — Photo by Jamie Velandra

Those of us who venture outside these days, or have done so in the past, have likely witnessed a certain kind of scuffle in our local park. It isn't the common kind, involving children who disagree over who gets to hold the pine cone, nor a similar conflict in the realm of adults, but instead a blur of colorful fabric accompanied by the drum of foam swords.

There's a good chance that that scuffle was a small part of Amtgard, a live-action role-playing (LARPing) organization dedicated to safe, fun, high-fantasy-styled role-playing and combat. Since the official end of pandemic-related social distancing, chapters in the greater Seattle area have been growing their numbers once again.

There are other LARPing groups that participate in such "battlegames," namely Dagorhir and Belegarth, but Amtgard sets itself apart in ways less readily recognized by outsiders.

For one thing, like many of its tabletop-game counterparts, Amtgard puts realism aside and includes rules for players to act out a "class," a medieval fantasy archetype with unique combat abilities. An Amtgardian can be a warrior monk, a ranger, or a wizard, among other things. But as its fans will attest, there's a lot more to the organization overall.

"There are so many sides to Amtgard," said veteran member Shieldmaiden Stoat (she/they). "There's something for everybody, you know? You can be involved in a part of the community and never set foot on the battlefield."

Many LARP communities have a barrier to entry, like a fee or strict dress codes, but Amtgard is a not-for-profit organization in far more than name alone. It's democratic, decentralized, and enthusiastically DIY, and many of its fans volunteer their time and skills to keep it that way.

After all, someone has to make the rules, hand out the trophies, and organize the events themselves, not to mention staff them. That they do it without pay, especially in this economy, is a testament to their love for the hobby.

"You can be a garber, you can be in organizing, you can donate your time ... you can cook meals for people at events," Stoat said. And you can do all of that in character if you want.

Amtgardians participating in a quest — Photo by Jamie Velandra  

Origins in the hobby
Stoat has been LARPing for over ten years. Her first encounter with Amtgard was "this huge kingdom-level event where there were hundreds of people fighting in this massive battle. I was like, 'This is the coolest thing I've ever seen in my life.' And I've been hooked ever since."

Stoat admitted that she never really got into Amtgard's inner politics, but Swordbearer Kodiak (they) joined just nine months ago and has already taken on ample responsibilities for the Redmond chapter. That has meant diving headfirst into the grander structure of the organization.

To give a sense of Amtgard's scale, North America is divided into 20 different kingdoms so far. Each kingdom is responsible for its chapters (called "parks"), and a chapter that consistently attracts enough people can apply for a higher rank of recognition (shires, baronies, duchies, etc.).

Each kingdom has its own charter, procedures, and elected government, but every year or so, their leaders convene to make sweeping decisions, like approving new battlegame rules.

Western Washington is romantically dubbed the "Kingdom of the Northern Lights," and as a baron in role but not title, Kodiak has done scheduling, administrative work, and outreach at local geekdom hot spots. They've been at big ones like this year's Emerald City Comic Con, but also smaller ones, like the opening day of the Dungeons & Dragons movie, where they and other Amtgardians handed out information in costume.

Side by side, the stories of Stoat and Kodiak give a good sense of how differently Amtgard can be approached and yet enjoyed all the same. Stoat started out as a monk, a class known for its simplicity, since she wanted to jump right in and start whacking.

Kodiak applied their administrative skills to playing as a spell caster, which involves reciting specific incantations quickly and accurately while still avoiding attacks. Including magic in the rules has meant that Amtgardians don't have to be fantastically athletic to have an edge in combat, Stoat explained, though good cardio certainly helps.

During battlegames that use the class system, "regardless of where your strengths are, you can play a spell caster, and most of that is about learning and memorizing rules and stuff," Stoat said. "Or you can play an archer, which is a completely different playstyle."

The opposite of gatekeeping
Most Amtgardians are eager to teach new players, and that applies to the battlegame rules as much as crafting weapons, armor, and outfits.

One could always commission a premium foam weapon, but "you're just as good off having a player help you make one," Kodiak said. "I was gifted a lot of my stuff. The quiver that Stoat uses is a quiver that was gifted to me."

"Amtgardians tend to be pretty generous," Stoat said. "They'll help you make your first sword, or help you make your first tunic."

More than that, "through Amtgard, you can get mastery in a trade skill for free," Stoat said. "Specifically leatherworking and sewing are two giant pillars of this game."

Yet for newbies, whether they're interested in the swords, the sorcery, or the smithing, the hobby can still be pretty intimidating.

"I think an Amtgard battlegame is probably one of the most complex social situations I've ever witnessed or encountered," Stoat said. "It's dozens and dozens of people all playing by the same rule book and resolving all these mechanical interactions with each other constantly."

Reading that might not help, but there's a big reason that play-fighting at that scale works: people aren't taking it too seriously.

"You can be a total goober," Stoat said. "There was someone whose name was Render, and they wanted to become a knight, so when they became a knight, their name would be Sir Render."

"All my titles are based off of bears for a reason," Kodiak added.

Another player had a foam sword styled like a giant salmon.

Currently, the Kingdom of the Northern Lights is holding a friendly competition called Spring Muster, to see which chapters can recruit the most players.

So far, to Kodiak, the numbers are looking promising. "Specifically at my park, half of us that are coming out regularly are newer than I am. So I feel a little bit more optimistic that people are coming and that we're gonna get up to duchy numbers next year."

You can find your nearest Amtgard park and more info on the Kingdom of Northern Lights at https://www.amtgardnorthernlights.org/