|Atlas Agenda memebers dressed for a cyberpunk civilization. First row (from left): Kara Minotti Becker, Jen Connolly, Scott Long. Second row: Ben Becker Jay Schlesinger, Gina Long, Rob Carroll, Derek Dalis, Treska Cole.|
|They're game. Are you?|
Slaying dragons, smashing evil empires, saving the universe ... all in a weekend's work
By Carol Band, Globe Correspondent, 12/07/2000
What are you going to do this weekend? Go to a movie? Have friends over for dinner? That's nice. But look around. See your neighbor across the street or the guy sitting one cubicle over? They might just have more exciting plans - like slaying dragons, defeating evil empires, and assuming the personas of elves, orcs, princesses, and aliens.
The college kids who dabbled in fantasy and role-playing games 20 years ago have grown up. Not only are they still playing games, like Dungeons & Dragons, but they have introduced role-playing and fantasy to a new generation.
Friday Night: A wintry wind whips the rustic cabins of Camp Hayward, a Boy Scout camp in Sandwich that is closed for the season but far from deserted. Tonight it has been transformed into the medieval village of Dupree. Nearly 100 characters are arriving to take up residence for the weekend; among them are evil knights, mischievous elves, and animal-human hybrids endowed with magical powers. The characters have converged as part of the live-action role-playing (LARP) game called Dragon Crest.
One weekend a month, players come to do battle with foam weapons, engage in theatrical banter, and act out a storyline loosely constructed by one of the game's founders, 30-year-old William Flippin of Quincy.
The Dragon Crest weekends draw men, women, and children from all backgrounds and professions. David Lord, a 36-year-old professional with a local software company, comes with his 15-year-old son, Tim. The real-life father and son play dwarf brothers Thunder and Storm during the Dragon Crest events.
David Easa, a 33-year-old resort manager from Sandwich, is also a frequent Dragon Crest player. For his character - "a wizard named Mika who is a wolf-human hybrid" - Easa dons a latex wolf mask, leather armor, and a hooded maroon and gray cloak that he made himself. Easa explains that the main task for the villagers on a recent weekend was to restore balance of the elements earth, air, water, and fire.
"There is no time during the weekend where you are not in character or ready for action," Easa says. "At 2 a.m., your cabin can be raided, or someone may come asking for your help because trolls have overrun their farm."
Like other live-action role-playing games, the battles in Dragon Crest are acted out with boffers - weapons made of foam-wrapped PVC tubing. Spells and lightning bolts are harmlessly delivered by throwing a small cloth packet of birdseed at the target. Membership dues cover insurance costs, and a ban on alcohol, drugs, and open flames is strictly enforced.
"In the rare instances when someone does have an injury, it's from tripping over a branch, or running into a tree in the dark," Flippin says.
This weekend and on the last weekend in January, Dragon Crest will host Winter Revels Weekends at Camp Burgess in Sandwich. Players register in advance so that their characters can be incorporated into the plot. "There'll be 100 players," Flippin predicts with a smile. "The cabins are heated."
The six-year-old Boston chapter of Dragon Crest, one of four nationwide, now has 150-200 members. It isn't the only live-action role-playing game in the Boston area. There are dozens - like the ones sponsored by the largest fantasy role-playing group in New England, NERO (New England Role-playing Organization). The Massachusetts chapter has 400 active players, according to chapter owner Rachel Morris, and is run like a business, selling not only the rights to characters, but chapter franchises as well. And it's a growing enterprise.
"We have people in their mid-60s playing alongside of teenagers, and fathers and sons who sign up for weekend events together," says Morris. "The organization's motto `Be All That You Can't Be' appeals to both men and women whether they are brain surgeons or bricklayers."
Morris, however, admits that she was a skeptic when she first heard about NERO from a friend.
"I grilled her for about a week before I went to watch a game," she says. "To an outsider, it looks like a bunch of idiots running through plastic sheeting with plumbing supplies. Once you're involved, though, your imagination takes over and it really takes shape. It's like acting in the theater, only everyone in the audience is an actor as well."
Many of the fantasy role-plays, like NERO, Dragon Crest, and the darker vampire games, are set in the medieval period; others take place in less familiar settings.
The Atlas Agenda, a game run by husband-and-wife team Ben Becker and Kara Becker Minotti of Waltham, centers on a cyberpunk civilization where players battle with foam balls launched from paint guns. Another LARP game, Madrigal, calls on players to use their knowledge of the arts to unravel mysteries and defeat evil in a high fantasy world.
The success of these events has not been lost on their creators. The New England Role-Playing Organization is developing plans for corporate retreats and management training seminars based on its role-playing scenarios. Imagine bopping your boss with a foam-covered PVC pipe, while learning management techniques (and finding out which of your collegues looks good in tights!).
As ogres and elves are populating the woods of the Upper Cape, adolescent boys are invading historic Lexington Center. A small parade of minivans and Volvo wagons pulls up unceremoniously to the door of Hit & Run on Waltham Street.
Teenage boys, laden with suitcases, boxes, and Tupperware containers, slide out of the cars. One by one, they dash through the front door as their mothers call out instructions: "Have fun." "Don't forget your jacket." Inside, however, the kids are masters of the universe - albeit one confined to a tabletop.
They've come to play WarHammer, a strategic fantasy game involving armies of hand-painted miniature figures that move according to an elaborate system of rules and the roll of dice.
Carol and Dan Ferullo, owners of Hit and Run, have been hosting games for eight years. After school, the tables are filled with kids trading and playing with Pokemon cards.
Tonight is a WarHammer 40K tournament, and by 6 p.m, 14 boys are setting up armies of Space Marines, Imperial Guardsmen, and futuristic elves called Eldar. Carol Ferullo pulls numbers out of a paper bag to determine teams.
The Ferullos don't seem to mind having their business overrun with adolescents. "They're good kids," Dan Ferullo says. "I think that most of the kids who play this tend to be - can I say this? - the smarter kids." They would have to be, it seems. The rulebook for WarHammer 40K is hundreds of pages thick - and the game involves more strategy than chess.
Standing a head taller than all the other players is Bryan Thombs, a 31-year-old military veteran from Texas.
"My wife and I have an agreement that I will only play WarHammer every other week, but she's working late," Thombs confesses, a tad sheepishly.
Tonight, his painstakingly detailed army of Imperial Guardsmen is already facing the forces of 14-year-old Lexington high school freshman Nathan Buckley. Thombs has been playing WarHammer since before most of his fellow players in the store were born. Over the years, he has amassed more than 200 of the tiny metal figures and spent hundreds of hours painting them.
His expertise and boyish affability make him the unofficial den leader of this young troop of fantasy gamers. Throughout the evening, he is peppered with questions regarding the rules and fine points of the game. "Hey Bryan, do your guys die when they fall off the table?" "Yes," Thombs replies with authority.
Saturday - noon: Eighteen men descend into the cavernous basement of Phoenix Hobbies on Salem Street in Medford for a WarHammer tournament.
Today, Jim Wilson, a 32-year-old Web designer from Wilmington, will wage war with his army of Beastmen as they come up against ranks of Skavens, Wood Elves, and LizardMen.
"It's an expensive hobby," Wilson admits, as he aligns his troops. "The guys here all have pretty good jobs and some disposable income." They'd better. Scott Kimball, a computer games designer from Waltham, reports that he has spent at least $5,000 on his figures and estimates that purchasing and painting a basic WarHammer army runs $200 to $500. "It's addicting," he says.
Chuck Davis, 37, has been playing war games every week for 24 years. He traveled from a horse farm in Hartland, Vt., with his army of giant rats, called Skaven. Among his oppponents are David Foster, a 42-year-old jewelry manufacturer from Waltham, and Charles Garland of Tyngsboro, the 53-year-old owner of a fiberglass company.
"I started collecting the figures because I enjoyed painting," Foster recalls. "Before I knew it, I had an entire army."
The tournament will last for three or four hours. The eventual winner will take home a piece of foam gaming scenery donated by the store's owner, Jim Parcella. "It's not a high stakes game," Wilson says. "We're here because it's fun."
Saturday - 3 p.m.: Walter Hunt, a 43-year-old from Bellingham, is another self-proclaimed game addict. As president of the Merrimack Valley Gamers Association, a post he has held since 1983, he plays just about every type - from German board games like Druiden Walzer and Krieg und Frieden, to collectible cards like Magic: The Gathering, to elaborate fantasy role-playing games. Most any day of the week you can find a Merrimack group at play.
"Today, some folks gathered at my house and we played the new Lord of the Rings game. Twice," Hunt says. "It's a good game, based on the J.R.R. Tolkien series. We got pretty far but weren't able to get the ring into Mount Doom."
Next week, Hunt and his group, the Green Team, will continue a role-playing game of Hunt's creation that has lasted for 13 years. "Believe it or not," Hunt says, "we have word-for-word transcripts of every minute of the 13 years of the game's dialogue."
The game is set in 13th-century Eurasia, and during the course of events, the players have interacted with such historical characters as Thomas Aquinas and Alexander III. "We're all middle-aged adults," Hunt comments. "We could be doing something else, but we want to be here, playing games."
Saturday - 7 p.m.: In the living room of their Colonial home, Daniel Salas, an Arlington High School freshman and his 45-year old-father, Pito, exchange curses and spells. They're playing Magic: The Gathering, the most popular of the collectible card games.
"When Daniel introduced me to Magic, I thought it looked interesting enough for me to learn too," says Pito, the chief technology officer for the Internet start-up e-Room. "I like intricate rules and I thought that this would be a nice way to share something with my son."
Pito says that Daniel is forever coming up with new games. "He is always light years ahead of me as far as knowing the game rules, so I'm probably not his ideal partner," Pito adds. "But, with a bowl of chips, a fire in the fireplace, and the chance to be together, it's not a bad way to spend a Saturday night."
Sunday - noon: At Fire and Ice in Harvard Square, 25 members of BostonGamers are meeting for brunch. This is one of the group's first social events since Johannah Hubal founded it last year.
When Hubal, a 25-year-old with fairy-princess hair, moved to Boston from South Carolina, she wanted to recreate the thriving community of role-playing gamesters that she knew in college.
"The people I knew in Boston had never even heard about the kinds of games that I had played," she says. "But with so many colleges here, I thought there might be a population of adults who wanted to continue the types of games they had enjoyed as students."
Sure enough, BostonGamers now has over 100 subscribers on their e-mail list. The diverse group of young professionals play a wide range of games, from Dungeons & Dragons to those inspired by soap operas and science fiction novels.
Vivian Abraham, 29, a legal assistant and law school student, recalled the New Year's Eve Party that she and her husband, Daniel, hosted at their Somerville apartment last year. "We based the story on Jules Verne's `20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,' " she says. "Our apartment became the submarine, everyone came in Victorian dress and was prepared to play a character. Naturally, there was a murder."
While miniature fantasy war games seem to attract mostly men, women make up half of the BostonGamers. In fact several of the couples at the Fire and Ice brunch met through role-playing games.
After the brunch, several gamers head over to the Abrahams' place to continue a Dungeons & Dragons game written by Daniel that they've been playing weekly since last July. Inside their cozy apartment, bookcases line the walls: "The Dictionary of Imaginary Places" and "The Dungeon Master's Guide" share shelves with "The Torah" and Vivian's law texts.
The group gathers around a coffee table and Vivian pulls out the new Dungeons & Dragons book and a handful of dice. The story unfolds with Daniel acting as the Dungeon Master, or storyteller. Soon the players are deep into the story and their characters are gesturing and arguing as the plot takes an unexpected twist.
"A game has to be really good in order to entertain a bunch of grown-ups this well," Vivian says. Daniel predicts that this game will last until next July.
Monday Morning: Jim Wilson has packed up his LizardMen and Bryan Thombs's Imperial Guards are back in their foam-padded briefcase. Vivian Abraham has closed the Dungeon Master's Guide and opened her legal briefs.
David Easa has peeled off his latex wolf mask and thrown his muddy cloak into the wash. "I love to go back to work on Monday and have people ask what I did over the weekend because I can say `I stormed the castle, killed the bad guys, and restored balance to the universe.' "
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