Players ditch — a type of sparring — during a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Players ditch — a type of sparring — during a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Knights of Mill Creek: In live-action fantasy game Amtgard, nerds rule

They dress as fantasy characters and whack folks with fake weapons in this fantasy game. Or maybe they just show off their crafting.

MILL CREEK — About 30 fierce warriors from across the kingdom gathered on Jan. 29 in the woods.

A picnic shelter at McCollum Park near Mill Creek was to be their battleground.

A purple-robed wandering samurai named Chiba, the player persona of James Woods, of Seattle, was surrounded. Upon defeat, he screamed “fight after death,” activating a special ability. He used seven seconds of invulnerability to inflict massive damage on nearby enemies with his blade. Still, the match ended in defeat for his team.

“They won, but it wasn’t by a whole lot,” Woods said. “I at least stabbed almost everyone on the opposite team at least once.”

The tournament winners walked away with magical artifacts. One may have looked like a plain old stick, but to those who play the game Amtgard, it was a Wand of Mending. The weapons are pretend. The enthusiasm and community formed around the hobby are real.

Charlie Heberer, persona Kulos, explains the details of a 4v4 Ring The Bell tournament during a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Charlie Heberer, persona Kulos, explains the details of a 4v4 Ring The Bell tournament during a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

‘Very chaotic’

Amtgard is a live-action role-playing game, also known as LARPing. Players portray fictional characters through costumes and props. Some LARPers focus on storytelling and solving problems verbally, like a murder mystery game with a Victorian setting.

In Amtgard, conflict is resolved through melee combat. Players dress up as medieval fantasy characters and duel to the death. The most common weapon is a standard short sword, typically made from a graphite golf club with the club head cut off and covered with foam, often a pool noodle, and then wrapped in cloth. The goal is to deal damage to an opponent, similar to fencing, and decrease their health points to zero.

It wouldn’t be nerdy without a bit of magic tossed in. Players can cast spells by chanting a phrase multiple times. This activates special effects, like freezing a person’s leg in place or granting an ally health points. There are also classes like assassin, bard and monk, each with their own abilities. Amtgard can be a lot to take in.

“It’s very chaotic the first time you do this,” said Judson Day, of Everett. “After a while you get used to it.”

Judson Day, persona Hated, hits the ground after being struck in the leg by a passerby who wanted to learn about Amtgard during a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Judson Day, persona Hated, hits the ground after being struck in the leg by a passerby who wanted to learn about Amtgard during a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Day was one of the first to join The Hollow, the Everett Amtgard chapter formed in 2009. The group meets every Sunday at McCollum Park, and they also host campouts a few times a year. The Hollow is part of the Kingdom of Northern Lights, which encompasses a few hundred active players from chapters across Western Washington.

Amtgard started in 1983. It’s played across the United States. Some people have been playing for decades. What keeps them coming back week after week is the community.

It’s common practice for players to loan equipment to newbies. And there are no trade secrets in Amtgard. Players will gladly teach anyone and everyone their craft. Day specializes in making paracord belts and has led workshops on the craft. Other players have taught classes on sewing, leather-working and even bread-making.

Throughout the tournament, players enthusiastically greeted the random onlookers who stopped to gawk. Some passersby were allowed to take a crack at swinging a sword. There’s a sense among players that what they do is geeky and unusual, but they’re happy to share it with folks who accept them. Or as Wyvern “Kodiak” Peters, of Olympia, puts it: “I get to be a weirdo with a bunch of other weirdos.”

Dane Pischke, persona Matrix, tries to fend off a couple attackers during a warmup round of “heavy object” at a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, 2023, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Dane Pischke, persona Matrix, tries to fend off a couple attackers during a warmup round of “heavy object” at a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, 2023, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

‘Best in Dragon’

Part of the fun of Amtgard is creating a character backstory and fantasy name. Day works as a low-voltage electrician. But in Amtgard, he’s a squire aspiring to knighthood named Hated. Marie Turner, of Seattle, is known to players as Soon. It’s short for “Something Soon,” which she originally wrote down as a placeholder. The name stuck.

“We have this little joke that says if you don’t pick (a name) within the first month, we’re going to end up picking one for you,” Day said.

Many players sew their own outfits from scratch. Some will crochet tunics to look like chainmail. Others use leather and plate mail for a realistic look. Doug “Pyro” Schulze made a chainmail shirt out of 9,000 metal rings. It weighs 35 pounds and took him a month to finish.

Dane Pischke, persona Matrix, shows off a crafting award won the previous year during a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Dane Pischke, persona Matrix, shows off a crafting award won the previous year during a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Some players take inspiration from TV shows and video games. Dane “Matrix” Pischke, of Kenmore, distinguished by his multi-colored dyed hair, made a foam shield modeled off one from the “Legend of Zelda” series. His garb is based on the character Prince Zuko from the cartoon “Avatar: the Last Airbender.”

That Sunday he wielded a 7½-foot pole arm made from bamboo. Did he think he’d win the tournament? Not at all, but he took pride in his wardrobe. On his belt were medallions from crafting competitions he’s won. Pischke was awarded “Best in Owl” for his battle gear and “Best in Dragon” for a vocal performance. He sang a song from Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Players can excel outside of sparring.

“There are very few people who can beat me in foam-smithing,” Pischke said. “I may not be good (at combat), but I look pretty and that’s what matters.”

Paul Campbell, persona Aidan, charges forward while wielding a homemade shield during a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Paul Campbell, persona Aidan, charges forward while wielding a homemade shield during a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

‘This level of nerd’

Day first learned about Amtgard the same way a lot of players do, from a friend. Two years after high school, Day was lonely. He spent his free time playing video games. One day he got a knock on his door from an old classmate who invited him to a nearby park to sword fight.

With nothing better to do, he agreed. Two weeks later he attended his first Amtgard campout near Gig Harbor. He’s been playing ever since.

“Most people usually stay in for the long haul,” Day said. “I’ve been playing for over 14 years now, and I can’t imagine being anywhere without this game. It’s completely changed my life.”

Schulze is another seasoned fighter. He plays as a paladin, an advanced class, and holds the sought-after title of Knight of the Flame, indicated by his white belt with red trim. Schulze works as a combat engineer stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Tacoma. He moved from Texas less than a week before the tournament, but from the outside you’d never know it. He fit right in, like he’d been part of the Everett group for years.

Schulze thought Amtgard “was the nerdiest thing I’ve ever seen” before first giving it a try in high school. He was talked into attending a meeting by some friends. That was 22 years ago, and he’s been playing ever since.

“I thought this was dumb at first, but there’s worse things I could be doing. I could be sitting at home drinking a beer right now,” Schulze said. “Instead I’m out here getting exercise and I love it.”

Brian Mann, persona Medzek, prepares to fire an arrow during a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Brian Mann, persona Medzek, prepares to fire an arrow during a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

That Sunday, a lot of players in the tournament came from the nearby Inland Ocean chapter based in Redmond. Players often visit nearby chapters to meet new people, like Kim “Thrin” Lloyd and her husband. The two drove from Olympia for the event, although they didn’t participate. Lloyd said swordplay isn’t her strong suit, but “people are scared of my throwies,” referring to balls she chucks at enemies. She plays as the scout class, which specializes in stealth.

As the fighting went on, Lloyd, a retired baker who wore a mushroom hat and tunic she crocheted, stood on the sidelines chatting with other players and showing off her pit bull puppy Wilbur, who she got from another player. The couple started playing six months ago after coming across the game online. They have been married for 33 years and were looking for something to do together. Lloyd never imagined herself doing something like Amtgard, especially at her age. But there are ways to play the game that don’t require great athleticism, like casting magic or using a bow and arrow. The camaraderie is also a big draw for the two.

“I never thought that I’d be playing with the nerds here. I mean, I always knew I was a nerd, but this level of nerd? No, and now here I am,” Lloyd said. “We haven’t had anything to do together in a long time, and we both love it in our own ways.”

Team Hybris A, foreground, stare down Team Wren before a round of “ring the bell” during a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Team Hybris A, foreground, stare down Team Wren before a round of “ring the bell” during a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

‘New blood’

The Hollow has seen better days. Before the pandemic about 30 people consistently showed up to the weekly meetups. The group is now lucky to muster around 10. This membership decline led the chapter to be demoted from duchy to shire, the smallest class of chapter.

It’s a downward trend Robert Manning, of Stanwood, wants to reverse. Under the name Sol, he serves as the chapter’s king, an elected position acting as group administrator and is responsible for coordinating events.

Manning never wanted to be king, but he stepped up to help keep the chapter running. He said it was hard when COVID cases peaked. For a time The Hollow only met virtually for crafting workshops. Attendance was limited when they did return to in-person gatherings. People wore masks and social distancing was enforced. It led a lot of folks to hang up their greaves.

“It was a real hassle,” Manning said. “COVID hit us pretty hard.”

Wyvern Peters, persona Kodiak Rubus, helps another player fasten some armor prior to a “ring the bell” tournament during a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Wyvern Peters, persona Kodiak Rubus, helps another player fasten some armor prior to a “ring the bell” tournament during a weekly meeting of the Amtgard LARPing group The Hollow on Jan. 29, at McCollum Park. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Ideally, Manning would like to have at least 20 folks at each meetup. A further dip in attendance could lead the chapter to dissolve. So right now the group is in recruitment mode. In March, the group will host combat demonstrations at the upcoming Emerald City Comic Con, March 2-5 in Seattle. Another player, Turner, hopes it will inspire the next generation of players to take up arms.

“That is a really big opportunity for us,” Turner said. “Obviously you have all these warlords who’ve been playing for like 14 years, but it needs new blood.”

For more information on Amtgard, visit facebook.com/amtgardTheHollow/

Correction: A previous version of this story had the name of Charlie Heberer misspelled in a photo caption and had the incorrect home city of the Inland Ocean chapter. The chapter is based in Redmond, not Renton. The story was corrected accordingly on February 12, 2023.

Eric Schucht: 425-339-3477; eric.schucht@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @EricSchucht.

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