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Living the LARP life in the Berkeley hills

Lilia Vega
LARPers playing a game of Fight Elephant, a holiday party game that allows players to fight for presents. Friedan Gresh, aka Fidget Fagitolli, carries a foam weapon

Parallel to our world is a fantasy world full of knights and dragons, wizards and druids. Every Sunday they take a break from their separate lives and come together to battle for glory.

Codornices Park, where they gather, is a few blocks north of the UC Berkeley Campus.

To get there you have to surmount a steep hill; the farther up you go, the wilder the terrain becomes. Trees become lusher, the sidewalk buckles from the pressure of giant roots, and on some early mornings, this whole North Berkeley area is swirled in fog.

And on Sundays, you might hear the sounds of mortal combat with medieval weapons, plus a little gallantry and heroism.

The LARP life

Right by the side of Codornices Creek, in a clearing just off the main path, is the assemblage of heroes. Warriors and wizards, barbarians and bards locked in battle, swords and staffs in hand.

But if you look closer, you'll see the weapons in their hands are made out of foam, not steel.

"We’re all here to just hit each other with sticks and act like idiots," says Jacob Lee, the organizer of today’s event.

These are LARPers, or Live Action Role Players. They’re here to play a medieval-themed combat game called Amtgard — and no one's trying to kill anyone else.

"All parts of the core that are able to hit someone need to be padded with a certain amount of padding," Lee says. "Because we’re in reality a full-contact sport, right? We’re not pulling punches. If you watch someone swing, we’re actually trying to hit the guy."

In this world, Codornices Park is the mythical land of Wyvern’s Spur. Amtgard is like a game of Dungeons & Dragons come to life. Instead of a board, players fight on real terrain.

"If you think of it as like video game," he says, "then you’ll imagine those as game objectives, things like spawn points, capture points, things like that."   

Creating a scene

A lot of Amtgard is in the imagination. But even though the swords aren’t bare steel, they’re real.

Louel Señores knows that firsthand: "I once knocked someone’s tooth out. But they said it was loose already, they said it was loose already! I was mortified. And they were like, ‘don’t worry, we all signed the contract, we knew it’d happen, and it was loose already anyway.’

It’s hard to look pretty and dodge blows at the same time. So most people are dressed pretty practically.

But Louel is an exception: he’s got on a pair of steampunk goggles, chainmail, and a sash with medallions that jingle with his every step.

"These belly dancer belts," he says, "that you get from the Renaissance fairs? I purchased one of those because it matched the color scheme."

For some, LARPing is about the sport or the physical exercise. For others, it’s a social club where they got to meet new friends.

And for some people, it’s all about escaping into a fun character.

"Well, I’m Fidget Fagitolli of the family Fagitolli, and I’m a bard," says Friedan Gresh says of his impish character, who at one point had "pirate hunters, pirates, and the entire kingdom trying to kill him. It was a whole bunch of mistakes that led up to it, but...basically I might have accidentally tried to assassinate the king."

Seems like he gets into a lot of trouble?

"Fidget is ... not intelligent," Gresh says. "So he just kind of does things impossibly and starts fights, which in the LARP community actually is a lot of fun."

Little kingdoms of California

There are lots of Amtgard communities around the Bay Area.

Fidget’s from Ashen Spire, which is another park in Fremont. Both Ashen Spire and Wyvern’s Spur are part of the greater Kingdom of Westmarch, a.k.a. California.

So Wyvern’s Spur is just one small barony in a larger world of duchies, principalities, and kingdoms. But almost everyone here agrees that there is something special about this Berkeley spot.

Sure, there are anachronistic elements like park benches, a barbecue grill and some safety cones, but it’s pretty easy to lose yourself in the forest environment around you.

"There’s something about when I got onto that field, where there were 30 people on the field, where we were fighting in a forest that I had to hike through," he says. "And I didn’t even remember anything else except running through the forest, playing this random game ... fighting until the literally the sun went down.’

In the Kingdom of Westmarch, I’m Lilia Vega for Crosscurrents.