Blood, Magic and Mud
It’s well past one o’clock on a Monday afternoon, and Jacob Scheibel is wearing pajama pants and an Iron Maiden t-shirt. He opens up the hatch of his Jeep and unzips a black hockey bag that takes up most of the trunk. The first thing he shows me is a mace, a single-handed weapon that medieval knights once used to bludgeon opponents to death. The shaft isn’t much longer than a foot, with a slim, four-flanged head on one side and a pummel the size of a mallet on the other. A long intimidating spike protrudes from the top. Scheibel says he crafted it himself, out of 1″ schedule 40 PVC, blue camping foam, and hockey tape. “It’s been certified legal by the Executive Council,” he assures me.
Jacob Scheibel is a live action role-player, or larper. Larping involves a blend of acting, storytelling, improvisation, character development, and foam swordplay. “Imagine a game of Dungeons & Dragons played out in real life,” he says, “with combat happening between two people, and players using what props they can to best facilitate the image and happening.”
Larping is done almost-exclusively outdoors. Any area — park, field, yard, etc. — can be used, as long as it provides the space and privacy necessary for roleplay. As with many tabletop and video roleplaying games, players design their own characters, from Orcish warlords to Dwarven bards (assuming they have the right costumes), and gain new abilities for each quest they finish, each foe they vanquish, and each event they stay in character for. Sometimes requires a heavy dose of imagination. “It all comes down to the roleplay,” says Scheibel. “The spell ‘push,’ for example. If you point your hand at somebody and yell ‘push’ then they should react as if they have been pushed by a wave of energy. We don’t have a very good representation of that wave of energy aside from that person’s reaction, hence why we have the saying ‘roll with it.’” Other spells include “fire,” which involves throwing grains of rice at another player, engulfing them in flames, and “entangling vines,” which requires one player to shoot silly string at another, causing roots to erupt from the ground and bind their limbs.
Scheibel belongs to the group Medieval Chaos, which meets every Saturday at Dagger Deep, a motley collection of buildings in the forests outside of Duncan. I head there on a rainy morning in September. The road to Dagger Deep is quiet, and bordered by a few sparsely-populated pastures and an old one-room church house and cemetery. I turn onto a gravel road that’s barely wide enough to fit my tiny pick-up truck and proceed cautiously as it is assailed by thin branches.
It’s only one p.m., two hours before the festivities start, so the town is empty, save for Medieval Chaos founder Jared Williams, 30, who is wheeling a barrel out to Dagger Deep’s tavern, appropriately named Ye Olde Cock ‘n’ Ass. “Like a rooster and a donkey,” he explains.
On weekdays, Williams runs the elder program for Cowichan Tribes, working to restore the traditional language and cuisine of the Quw’utsun Sul’hween, the First Nations band he belongs to. But on weekends you can find him in Dagger Deep, continuing what he started through Medieval Chaos. Williams founded the group in 2004, back when it was just him and a few buddies playing on the weekend. “In the beginning we didn’t really know what we were doing,” he says, “so we just brought tents and found sticks in the woods to hit each other with. We were like 20 and 21 and didn’t really have lives. We had never heard of larping or anything like that, and I’m pretty sure that if you explained to us that there was this whole other world, we probably would have called you a bunch of nerds and told you to go away.”
Now Medieval Chaos boasts 282 members from Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. Through an easement agreement with the property owners, Williams has added 280 acres of surrounding land to his own eight-and-a-half for his members to use. He also built his own rulebook from the ground up, incorporating elements from tabletop roleplaying games, fantasy universes, and traditional herbalism, a hobby of his outside of the game.
Williams leads me around his property. Scheibel described the playing grounds to me as “rag-tag,” but he has not done it justice. We are surrounded by green fields, wide rivers, thick forests, and shadowed by Mt. Tzouhalem. In the centre of town stands a 20-foot, black, wooden watchtower, with a ladder nailed to one side and a red banner hanging from the other. At the bottom is a small garden, which is surrounded by a moat. A small shop, which sells “potions” and “spell books,” sits at the end of town, and two thrones perch on the flat roof. A few forts are scattered around the area, but their contents are hidden behind 30-foot tall wooden walls. Then there’s Woodhenge, a curious circle of logs jutting out of the ground like a four-storey claw.
“A good 10% of the people in the group are here often enough to help out,” Williams says. “We charge a yearly due, but it basically pays for candles and toilet paper and water that we have out here. The majority of the work here has just been people in the group helping out that want to make it look better and they want it to be more of an experience.”
We walk through Orcsfield and Paladin’s Grove and other aptly named areas. “If I could have chosen the location,” he says “I would have chosen somewhere else. The first two years we were out here we spent all our time and effort into building a 12×12 two-storey post and beam building that was all red cedar. Around year five it got burnt to the ground by an arsonist. Because we’re out in the middle of the reserve in a bad area, the police don’t really help us much, there’s not really a lot they can do to help us.” Then there’s the flooding. Around the end of November the entire area goes underwater for three months, which is how they chose the name of the town. As a result, it runs on what Williams calls a “five-year cycle,” which means that the rotted wooden buildings have to be replaced every couple of years.
Seeing the players arrive is a surreal sight: Leagues of armoured knights, cloaked wizards, and light-footed assassins, all piling out of sputtering Dodge Neons and pick-up trucks pushing 30-years old. Most of them haven’t been at this for as long as Williams has, so their costumes incorporate a fair number of hockey pads and thrift store finds. They’re eagerly talking about the day’s events (when they’re not recalling last week’s), but as soon as they cross the gate between Dagger Deep and the parking lot, a switch is flicked and they are suddenly in full character.
The three missions taking place today were posted online four days ago, so the players all know where to go. Missions are semi-scripted scenarios — the main party of five to 20 participants play as their main characters, and are given an objective to complete. The others play as “non-player characters,” who are given varying backstories, and work to either help or hinder the main party. The first mission of the day goes awry. The main party, in charge of escorting a princess across Orcsfield, make it only halfway before they are attacked by a gang of brigands who make off with their coin. The few surviving members regroup and continue on their trail, while the brigands head to the tavern. Between fighting and robbing groups of young adventurers, the brigands sing songs of the king taking liberties with sheep, the promiscuity of Orcish women, and of course, drinking and whoring.
“If I’m a brigand, I’m a highwayman, I’m a robber,” says Kelly Knitsch, 25. “My entire goal in life is to kill things and get shiny stuff, that’s what I do. So if I’m a little crude when I do it, that kind of goes part and parcel with hanging out with a bunch of guys for days on end with nothing else to do.”
On weekdays, Knitsch works as a security guard in Nanaimo. For the past three years, he has spent his weekends in Dagger Deep. “My favourite thing is that I can go out and be the person that I wanted to be, instead of being the person that I have to be in the real world. If I’m a security guard and somebody’s doing something really stupid, I can’t exactly slug them in the head and slit their throat. Although the thought may cross my mind, that would get me fired. But out here, totally, knock ‘em out, slit their throat, take their skull, put it on an altar somewhere to a blood god, there you go. It’s good times.”During the next mission, a group of holy paladins march into Fort Herrogen, a well-fortified plywood fortress, and are able to retake it from a local clan of stone-orcs. Later in the evening, the heroes of Dagger Deep return to town to battle an army of zombies.
The adventures end around nine p.m., and Ye Olde Cock ‘n’ Ass is filled with song, liquor, and heroes slipping in and out of character. But while players are celebrating another successful day, Williams and his fellow organizers are gathered in the throne room, planning the next. Remembrance Day weekend, the end of Medieval Chaos’s season, is drawing near. The rain is already pounding down on Dagger Deep, leaving the wooden buildings rain-slick, and within a month will be reminding the players of why the town received its name.
Williams looks out on what he’s built with a solemn pride. Running Medieval Chaos is a double-edged sword — although he loves what he does, he knows that come March, some of the buildings will not be standing and many of the members will have moved on. “Sometimes,” says Williams, “you just have to rip it all down and start over again.”