Light rain pattered against the windshield of the red Venza, barely audible above the sound of My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade coming from the stereo. The excitement in the air was palpable as we pulled into the farm at 212 Concession in Hagersville, just outside of Toronto.
I sat in the back seat, sandwiched between the door and a roof-high pile of camping supplies. In the front were my companions, Phoebe and John, who were singing along with the music. It was after seven on October 21st, well into the tail end of the blue hour, and I was anxious about having to set up our tent in the dark. My friends and I had been driving for nearly seven hours, including the three quick stops along the way. When we finally found a spot to park on the gravel driveway, the fact that we’d actually reached our destination felt somehow unreal.
The reason we made the long drive from Ottawa into the Greater Toronto Area? LARPing, or Live Action Roleplaying. Hagersville is home to a group known as Nero Canada, a group that holds LARP events that John had attended multiple times in the past. This would be Phoebe’s and my first time at Nero, but not our first time LARPing.
Nero Canada is an old group. Their Facebook page states that it has been running since 1992 in “various campsites around the Toronto/Cambridge area.” LARPing is a form of RPG (role-playing game) which involves the participants physically acting out their characters’ actions. It comes in a wide array of genres, including fantasy, steampunk, and various forms of science fiction.
LARPing groups often have a strict system of rules that cover things like how to behave in character and how to act in and out of combat. Nero Canada is no exception—their site features an extensive rule book that players must familiarize themselves with before participating in events. Players create characters using the rule book, employing a point-buy system to create a framework of skills and abilities. Characters literally come in all shapes and sizes—there are a variety of races one can play as, such as the hardy Orc, the haughty High Elf, and the feline Sarr. Many races require the use of make-up and prosthetics—elves, for instance, require fake ears, and many races require varying degrees of face paint.
Combat is heavily regulated at Nero. Only "boffer" weapons are permitted, which are essentially hard plastic rods coated in thick layers of foam and duct tape. Magic is represented by "spell packets" (squares of biodegradable cloth filled with bird seed and held shut with elastic) and require the caster to "incant" specific phrases before using their spells. Whenever damage is dealt in combat, it must be called out clearly, and each individual player is responsible for keeping track of their "body points," which determine how close to death their character is. Many actions in game, including the use of many skills and the act of dying, require a "count," wherein the user has to count to a specific number, which is used to mark the passage of time.
People involved in the LARP can be divided into two categories—PCs, (Player Characters), and NPCs, (Non-Player Characters). PCs are the individual characters that shape and are shaped by the story. NPCs, however, are the backbone of LARPing, and are how plots, events, and virtually anything else, happen. They vary greatly, from the enemies you fight to the quest-givers that ask you to slay said enemies. In Nero, players are required to spend some games as NPCs; as new players, Phoebe and I will probably have to do our time as NPCs at one of the next events we attend.
I like to describe LARPing as a large-scale improv session that (usually) takes place over the course of a weekend. It’s very immersive, and a player is expected to stay in character as much as they can once the game officially begins. This can be extremely daunting to a new player, and I found myself struggling to maintain my persona at times. It comes easier to some more than others, and watching experienced players act out their characters is fascinating. I watched John transform into his character, a charismatic arch-wizard that specializes in fire magic named Jack Crimson, in a matter of minutes. He managed to stay in character almost constantly during the game.
My character is Iszara Perwright, a shy, cowardly human with next to no confidence in her abilities and an intense desire to help her friends. She focuses on healing magic, largely out of a desire to be useful. This ended up being a good idea; I suffer from social anxiety, and often have a hard time interacting with people I’m unfamiliar with. I find that having a specific reason to talk to strangers tends to help lessen my anxiety, and it turns out that healing someone is a good way to break the ice.
Phoebe plays Myf Norovir, a Wood Elf rogue with a love of fighting. Her class keeps her on the front lines, close to the aforementioned Jack Crimson. As a healer, I stayed as far as I could from combat itself. This meant I often ended up sticking close to people I didn’t know very well. This was difficult for me at first, but it got easier as I became more familiar with my role as a healer; people are usually very nice to you when their life is in your hands. It helped that John was a returning player, and managed to get us membership in one of the town’s magical factions, the Celestial Guild.
The welcome that Phoebe, John, and I received was incredible, and we got a feel for our characters pretty quickly. At first, my job in combat mostly involved running away from anything that could possibly hurt me. I spent a lot of time hiding behind things, waiting for gaps in the fighting so that I could run in and help a fallen comrade. This changed somewhat when I was placed under the tutelage of a powerful healer by the name of Madame Talya, and eventually my task became shadowing people. As Iszara, I discovered that I might make a good backpack healer, which involves following specific people in combat and focusing on healing them whenever they’re injured, as opposed to looking after everyone at once. While these strategies of avoidance might not sound particularly exciting compared to, say, meeting the enemy head-on, they worked, and served me especially well on the last night of the event.
It was well after dark, and the Celestial Guild was headed into the forest to capture a rogue guild leader. There was a cold wind blowing, but I was warm enough in my wool cloak and long johns. My companions and I tramped down a dirt road towards the woods, keeping close to one another in apprehension of the evil clowns we knew might be lurking in the shadows. Though it was hard to make out who was who in the dark, I stayed as close as possible to Madame Talya, who was relatively easy to distinguish due to her flower crown. Out of the corner of my eye I watched my friends, who were told to stay near the front lines of the group. As we entered the woods, my heart began to race as we were hemmed in by the trees and forced to walk along smaller paths.
Dark shapes followed us as we walked. I found myself tightening my grip on my spell packets. My task in the forest that night was to keep Madame Talya alive at any cost, using my last four healing spells and a potion of life that had been entrusted to me by another guild member. I reflected guiltily on how many spells I’d used earlier that day in a fight involving flesh golems and a game of ring toss. If only I’d saved them for this trip.
As we ventured farther into the dark forest, we were set upon by mechanical spiders. Suddenly, Talya and the guild leader turned into statues as the result of an unknown spell. The mechanical spiders closed in. Fearing the worst, I ran off into the woods. Somehow, I managed to avoid pursuit, and I hid behind a tree, watching combat unfold as best I could in the dark. The guild seemed to be doing poorly, and an increasingly large portion of the party were being struck down. After a few minutes, I swallowed my fear and crept through the woods towards my guild members, intent on doing as much as I could to save my new friends from certain death.
Whether through some unknown talent for stealth, or an abundance of more interesting victims for the spiders, I seemed to go unnoticed as I neared the group. I knelt down next to the closest of the fallen.
“Healing arts,” I whispered, speaking the required phrase to use one of my healing skills. “How many body points are you down?”
The injured guild member turned out to be Myf. “All of them,” she replied, sounding worse for wear.
“First aid one, two…”
As I began the count required for me to use my first aid skill, I heard a chittering noise and froze, noticing a spider lumbering towards me.
Terror washed over me, and in the back of my mind I continued the first aid count. The spider drew nearer, and I was sure that I would be noticed and struck down. I was frozen in place, silently begging the creature to leave me be. Myf was similarly silent next to me as the spider came within a hand’s breadth of us, chittered again, and paused for what felt like an eternity. I had come to accept my seemingly inevitable defeat, but the spider ambled away.
I finished my first aid count, told Myf she’d been healed back to one BP, and ran back towards the rest of the group. The guild eventually left the forest with a mysterious chest, and the next day my friends and I drove back home, bearing sore muscles and tales of our adventures.
Sharon van Wyngaarden is a student in the Professional Writing program at Algonquin College. She enjoys taking long walks, drinking tea, and reading a good book. She also loves spending time with friends – especially if it means subjecting them to the torment that is watching terrible Nicolas Cage movies.