By Sarah Desabrais
“This man is dying! Shall I finish him?”
Bas Grav stalks out from a round, circus-style tent, leaving a body sprawled on the dirt inside. No one confronts this man wearing a Doctor Doom mask. His hands turn into fists when no one attempts to pull out a weapon to try and protect his latest victim. He turns on his heel, mud squelching under his boots. “Fine then!”
All around Bartertown, bodies lie in the mud. There are 10 sprawled along the main street dressed in dirt-covered camouflage and torn up khakis. It’s been raining all day. Moaning zombies add to the misery. The only thing louder than them is the screaming.
This isn’t real, but the fear is.
“[Elegy’s world] is a harsh and dangerous world where the doom of humanity is well and truly upon us, but in which humans keep on struggling on to survive,” says co-founder Julia Garro.
Elegy is a live action role-play (LARP) set up at a campsite called Mythwood, about two hours northwest of Toronto, near the small village of Dundalk, Ont.
Unlike most LARPs in southern Ontario, Elegy is set in a post-apocalyptic universe instead of a fantasy/medieval one — a point co-founder Jamie Snetsinger says makes for a unique game.
“There’s a lot about the post-apocalyptic genre that lends itself well to LARPing. Costuming and set-dressing is relatively easy and opportunities for conflict, and therefore story and drama, are rich,” he says.
The game runs one weekend a month between May and October. It gives players the ability to lose themselves in a crumbling world affected by “The Calamity” over a century ago.
The goal of the weekend: survive.
Michael Iantorno, a senior member of The Ontario Pathfinder Society – a roleplay gaming club – describes LARPing as the natural evolution of board games. After board games were introduced, roleplay games such as Dungeons and Dragons allowed players to impact the narrative. Now, LARPing allows players to physically alter the course of the game. With one word, one Nerf bullet, a character can change an entire plotline.
There’s a large stigma around LARP, though. Despite being a part of geek culture, it hasn’t become popular in the way that comic books and video games have. Lowell Williams, the president of Ryerson University’s Association of Ryerson Role-players and Gamers (ARRG), says it’s “a weird line to draw between geek culture and popular geek culture.” But it’s still a line that LARP hasn’t been able to cross. Iantorno says that LARPing is “just too nerdy” for the majority of the culture and society itself. Williams believes that part of this idea of it being “too much” comes from a place of intimidation. Lori Connor, a Ryerson journalism graduate, the Elegy player behind Toshra Freed-Lance, and an ARRG member, says that LARPing is seen as being at the “extreme end” of the nerd spectrum, and that it’s “full of weirdos.”
She thought this herself, when friend Marco De Crescentiis — ARRG president in 2013-14 — mentioned Elegy to her. Her initial thought was that it “sounded kinda weird and nerdy” but she got hooked when Elegy ran a day event for ARRG in the Student Campus Centre in 2013. Her thoughts quickly turned to, “Oh crap, this is awesome!” and she attended her first weekend event in October 2013.
Between ARRG and Elegy, Connor managed to make a set of new friends. She joined ARRG in her second year at Ryerson, and she says she didn’t have many friends at school. She had to travel home to the suburbs every night, so staying late at school for clubs or hanging out with other students wasn’t an ideal thought. Upon finding ARRG, she says that the club was where she made most of her friends during university.
Valerie Gershman, a fourth-year architecture student at Ryerson, and a sassy mutant bird shaman in Elegy, can attest to finding friends through LARP. She says she’s “a shy person by nature,” but “LARP is one such event that helps [her] get out of [her] shell and be a little more gregarious.
“It is a very unique experience in that it allows you to be someone else for a while, giving you freedom to be whoever you want to be, to express yourself on your terms.”
She says she is a member of ARRG via Facebook presence only, but she can still be counted among the small group of LARPers involved. During the student fair at the beginning of the semesters, Williams says that out of the roughly 120 sign-ups they receive, maybe only five to seven people will be interested in the hobby. He himself has attended a single LARP event, Elegy’s May 2014 game, the same event Gershman started at, but says “it just wasn’t [his] thing.”
Williams says there isn’t as much of a stigma around LARPing as he thought and especially not on campus. He says, “This isn’t high school,” commenting on Ryerson’s — and universities in general — diverse population. In regards to geek culture on campus, he says there isn’t much but ARRG is the place for that.
Both Connor and Gershman were part of the 110 players who came together for Elegy’s dreary second season finale. The event was permeated with the promise of death and it was evident from the newbie mod, an intro adventure into the world of Elegy, that by the end of the weekend players would not be disappointed. After log in and opening announcements, the new players gathered outside the directors’ headquarters — the main buildings on the site decorated with medieval shields — waiting for the game to begin around 11:30 p.m. on the night of
Oct. 17, 2014. They showed off boffers — melee weapons made out of PVC piping, plumbing insulation and duct tape — intended to look like pipes, crowbars and swords. Some players, like Dean Hitchcox, a construction project manager (and in-game, a heavily-armed medic) take Nerf guns apart and remodel them to their own liking, complete with a fresh coat of paint.
With players armed with proper post-apocalyptic weapons, the game is on. A shark chimera named Great White attempts to kill Bas Grav. The chimera — part animal, part human — storms towards the murderer while onlookers watch with anticipation. He raises his sword and stabs Bas Grav through the chest. Adam Petkovic, a 22-year-old film and media student at Humber, slinks away back to headquarters. Bas Grav’s body disappears.
Great White walks off. He’s heard that an acquaintance of his — Toshra Freed-Lance — has decided to go wandering off in the woods, alone. Again.
It’s one degree the next morning.
“Why do we come here?! It’s just bullshit and bad weather!” someone shouts.
They come for a vacation from reality. They clear their schedules, pack their camping equipment and drive two hours to a place that even Google Maps has trouble finding.
Players range from 18 to 60 years old. They are sign makers, construction workers, unemployed business graduates, war veterans. Several of them have social anxiety. An alcoholic attends because he knows it’s a dry place.
“During the weekend I’m not allowed to drink and I have people that are all doing the same so that I don’t feel any pressure psychologically or physically,” he says.
Andrew Duke, who plays a wolf chimera, says, “LARP is the perfect hobby, vacation and therapy all in one.”
Hitchcox agrees that the game is a stress releaser, and that people can combat different mental states by portraying the opposite in game. He gives the example that those with depression can play “a happy saviour of people”, or that those with social anxiety can “interact as someone [they’re] not.”
As the sun sets on Oct. 18, 2014, walking corpses arrive in town. The call of “walkers!” rings out. In the glow of hand-crank flashlights and the dim lights of town, the players are seen in silhouette, melee weapons raised and guns aimed at the approaching horde.
“If they get into town, it’ll be a clusterfuck!” shouts Jason McCloud, a spaghetti-western gunslinger.
On Sunday morning, it’s no longer raining. Around 12 p.m., an air horn sounds. Cheers erupt from the players, and takedown and clean-up start.
Once Mythwood is devoid of all things Elegy, some players head to a nearby restaurant to celebrate what they called “Afters.” They crowd around tables and swap stories from the weekend, trying to make the mealtime last before they have to return to reality.
Thomas Reive, who plays Great White, still wears some of his make-up. The top of his nearly shaved head is painted dark grey.
When people have to leave, they hug and voice their hopes of seeing each other at the Novomber 2014 social. Until the game officially restarts next season, they’ll make do with organized pub nights, spontaneous weekend boffer battle royals, game days at Toronto’s Snakes and Lattes and improv evenings. The friendships they make outside of the game only reinforce the fun they have in game. Garro says, “It’s important to LARP with people you’re comfortable with.”
Elegy will resume May 1 and ARRG will resume its weekly gaming nights in September for the new school year.
When Jack Westlake, who plays Jason McCloud, gets up to leave the restaurant, he stops in the doorway of the banquet room and turns to the people still eating.
“When I say Bartertown, you say fuck yeah!” he shouts. “Bartertown!”
“Fuck yeah!” they respond.