Medieval frolicking's a good larp

DEEP in a thick wood, cunningly hidden from view and as quiet as it's possible to be while wearing 60lbs of clanking armour, the daring knight carefully plots his next move. His strong hand grips his sword tightly, his mind races, his heart pumps.

For he is Sir Valten Drakvald, the illegitimate yet fiercely proud son of a nobleman. Towering over his fellow men, he is a 6ft 3in, 19-stone mighty hulk of medieval menace.

All of which might come as something of a surprise to the genteel customers in the shop where he works. For in reality, Sir Valten is Mike Young, an otherwise peace-loving, fairly ordinary 32-year-old bloke.

Yet hurtling around a public woodland dressed up as a knight of the realm, brandishing a pretend sword and generally escaping into a make-believe world of sprightly elves and ugly trolls, bad kings and pretty imprisoned princesses, is how he - and a surprising number of other white-collar professionals - are choosing to spend their spare time.

Mike is one of around 30 "larpers" - live action role players - in the Edinburgh branch of nationwide fantasy game Fools and Heroes, whose spare time involves dressing up and heading off into a fantasy land to act out medieval dramas.

On certain weekends, stroll through any one of a number of forests scattered around the Edinburgh area and you are just as likely to cross paths with a towering knight in full armour, fleeing princess or any number of humble healers, as you are a squirrel or a wood pigeon.

For the number of people losing themselves in fantasy - whether dressed in medieval garb and frolicking around a forest, indulging in fantasy card and board games or simply disappearing into their own little world accompanied by a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel or a Lord of the Rings DVD - has never been greater.

Type the words "live action roleplay" into the internet search engine Google and you'll be inundated with a staggering 95,000 hits from the UK alone.

And every geek in the world capable of spelling the word "hobbit" appears to be hooked on fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering.

And now there's the movie. Produced by Edinburgh-based Pure Magic Films, Gamerz the Movie turns "larping" into a comedy drama.

Based around the experiences of a geeky university fresher who discovers live action role play, it follows him into a love tangle for the affections of a goth who, incidentally, believes she is an elf.

Written and produced by one-time role-player Robbie Fraser, the film was premiered at an international science fiction festival in Glasgow last week - instantly raising the potential for even more people to dress up in replica medieval clothes, speak in ancient tongues and flounce around woodlands brandishing an array of fake weaponry.

But just why do so many apparently sensible adults feel the need to escape from reality by losing themselves in a fictional world of fantasy? And what do they get out of it?

"Look, in this world there are a lot of problems," sighs Mike, acutely conscious of how larping can easily become a target for sniggers.

"So it's good to get away from all of the problems for a little while. And this isn't that much different from, say, paintball.

"You're given a story to follow, a weapon and then you go and act out that story. And no-one really laughs at people who play paintball."

Apart from the fantasy escapism, there is also a physical side to an afternoon of larping, adds Mike, who lives in Dunfermline and has been a larper for 15 years, mostly with the Edinburgh branch.

"There's a chance you will be going to march through a forest for a good few miles dressed in heavy steel armour. That can be pretty hard going.

"So you get a pretty thorough afternoon of exercise and get to use your imagination at the same time."

Which is partly why Helen Dixon found herself spending her spare weekends dressed as an 11th century alchemist.

Yet with a degree in physics to her credit, some might wonder why she appears to have thrown her years of swotting aside in favour of larping and a new career in making and selling fantasy role-play outfits - just one element of a massive fantasy industry.

"I used to do orienteering when I was younger and I'd occasionally run into a live action group or someone dressed up as a goblin and wonder if they were all mad. So I'm not terribly surprised a lot of people don't take larping very seriously," says the 24-year-old. Every few weeks Helen, pictured left, who runs Lyonesse Clothing which specialises in larping outfits, morphs into Anna, a feisty runaway from the year 1002 who is a dab hand with a fake weapon.

"It's just nice to get outside - even when it's bitterly cold and snowing - and have a bit of escapism.

"It's about being somewhat childlike, but not childish. It's an opportunity to have fun and to be part of a group - people like to belong to a group."

Edinburgh-based corporate psychologist Ben Williams agrees there are childlike qualities to live action role-playing and taking part can bring many benefits.

"It's very important for children to role play, it's how they learn to be adults," he says.

"In adulthood, role play gives you release and relief from modern life. If you are playing the role of a cavalier or a Roman soldier, you aren't worrying about that report you have to write by Monday morning.

"It's pure escapism, but it also gives people a release from the limitations of their own personality. You might find a very staid bank manager or dull accountant can become an ebullient master, or commander or gladiator - it gives them a chance to be someone else for a while.

"There is no harm, as long as people understand it is a game. However, people can become obsessional and addicted to the emotional and intellectual payoff."

For call-centre team leader Andrew Crichton, 36, larping was a natural progression from his boyhood small-screen action heroes and space-age storybooks. "I was very taken by the tales of heroic deeds and I loved watching TV serials like Flash Gordon and the Flashing Blade," he says.

"My brother and I acquired the Dungeons and Dragons basic game to see what it was all about. The opportunity to create and play through your own stories is really what drew me in."

While larpers today can spend hundreds of pounds on a single replica sword, the early days of roleplaying was much more basic, he adds.

"Swords were just drainpipes wrapped in foam and costuming was quite pitiful.

"Now swords and other weapons look as they should and the level of costuming, particularly at events, is much higher than before. There also seem to be a lot more women involved."

So why does he go? "Live role-playing aides the imagination by letting you see the adventure rather than holding it all in your head," he explains.

"I think it is still the story elements basic to role-playing that keeps me going back - along with the better feeling of immersion that you get from the dressing up and acting out the drama."

Mike Young, alias Sir Valten Drakvald, agrees there's more to larping than running around a wood trying to rescue fair maidens. "A large body of larpers are either students or former students, people who are fairly intelligent. For me, I was a keen student of history before, but now I've learned more about knights and armour and their lives. Apart from that, there are worse things we could be doing."

• More information on Fools and Heroes LARP is available on


CAN'T take the pace of modern life? There's any number of fantasy games available to lose yourself in - from board games played with a dice, to pub role- playing games, live action role play to internet card games.

Business appears to be booming for Liam O'Connor, who runs Black Lion Games at 90 Buccleuch Street, a tiny store packed floor to ceiling with fantasy games.

"There are an awful lot of gamers out there - live action role players or people who play board and card games - and they cross all types and ages.

"I have customers ranging from kids up to their grandparents."

Many are hooked on Magic: The Gathering, a fantasy card game which some players describe as more complex than chess, requiring more skill than poker and highly addictive.

Jeremy Mansfield, who describes himself as a "boffin working in technology and development", plays Magic: The Gathering regularly, choosing his personal deck of cards from thousands of possibles, each one with its own value and abilities.

"Many of the good Magic players tend to have degrees in computing or maths," Jeremy says.

"Usually they are not much short of Mensa level and they often end up as very good poker players.

"Personally, I don't think I have ever encountered anything else that gives that same adrenalin rush and which is so intense.

"You put so much effort into winning, it is physically exhausting."

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