In the pitch dark, you trek through the woods with a motley band: an elven healer, a dwarven warrior and a couple of inebriated gypsies. You can only hope they'll keep quiet, as you don't want to attract the attention of the undead nearby. Hefting a long sword, you steel yourself for battle.
Not quite a fantasy novel and not nearly the daily grind, the New England Role Playing Organization (NERO) offers live action role playing a weekend at a time. Cincinnatians can find escape through the local chapter, the Wheeling Association of Role Playing (WAR), whose events take place at Boy Scout camps throughout Ohio as well as West Virginia.
The game offers the opportunity to become a part of a fantasy world in the mythical kingdom of Stonegate. Individuals can play as one of several races, including elves, dwarves, hoblings — much like the hobbits of Tolkien's creation — and Biata, bird-people. Players go to great lengths not only to look their part but also to behave as one of their race would.
"A guy once told me, 'Why do you do this?' and I said, 'How many times can you go running through the woods with guys in green tabards chasing you, realizing you could die, and it's safe?' " says Tim Saluga of Maineville, one of the owners of WAR.
Saluga's primary character, Altonvyr Zau'afin, is a dark elf, which requires him to wear black makeup and shun the sunlight.
"There's something about putting on the makeup that goes ahead and transforms you into your character," he says. "I could never be an actor or role-play on a stage, but with this game you can be who you want to be when you want to be him."
Players also choose a class, which defines their skills, such as a fighter, Templar, rogue or a spell caster in either the school of Earth or Celestial Magic. Players can "level-up" their class skills with experiences at each event.
All games are PG-13. Weapons are made of PVC pipe and foam and constructed to exact standards for safety.
Joe Goddard, whose elven Templar Jrutalon is both a capable fighter and a healer, says a WAR experience is unique.
"Fantasy has become a really big thing lately with the success of the Lord of the Rings movies," he says. "NERO gives you a chance to experience epic tales like that in the first person — solving mysteries, slaying beasts and saving the world yourself instead of merely doing it vicariously through some other character."
WAR players spend a great deal of their time "slaying beasts" played by the NPCs, or "non-player characters" that staff each event. NPCs play a myriad of foes, ranging from ogres and goblins to vampires and land sharks. Imagination is required at all times.
"You have to be the kind of person who still thinks the idea of dressing up and playing make-believe sounds fun," says Stuart Castergine of Zanesville, Ohio, who plays Lord Avila san Sebastian. "Of course, I work in a corporate environment and it sometimes makes water-cooler conversations a little awkward. The other guys are talking about their golf outing and I'm thinking to myself, 'Well, I spent the weekend fighting vampires and saving the town from undead hordes.' I usually just tell them I went camping."
Many players come from gaming backgrounds, playing table-top or online role-play games. Mary Italiano Layman initially had misgivings but was hooked after her first battle.
"That battle was the turning point for me," she says. "I wanted to feel that adrenaline again yet be perfectly safe, like riding a roller coaster in an amusement park."
'Be anything you want'
Layman also likes the opportunity for real world skills to be used in game. A member of the Embroiderers Guild of America, she's been able to incorporate those skills into her primary character, Jezebel Mardis. Her husband — in game and out — Phil Layman, who plays Malachi Mardis, fashions his own armor and weapons.
"The game only limits you by your imagination," he says. "At the end, people clean up, get a hot meal and talk about the individual battles like it was the Super Bowl."
An obvious appeal is that the possibilities are endless.
"Having an outlet for your creative urges, a place where you can be anything you want and being able to bring your fantasies and dreams to life has always been appealing to people," says Pat Jones, who got involved in NERO in college. "Each of us has inside us the desire to live an adventure, to be a hero and to be incredible."
Jones plays tavern keeper Nasir Dimrak and is on the plot team of the nearest camp to Cincinnati, the mythical town of Ashton, at Camp Oyo in Portsmouth.
"Running the game for other players and friends for several years, thereby giving even complete strangers the opportunity to live out their fantasies and wishes to live, play and grow in a world of imagination ... has made all the difference and kept me coming back for nearly 10 years," he says.
Friendship is at the center of the game experience.
"Playing NERO, or any other live action role-playing game, creates very close bonds between all different kinds of people," says Benson Greene of Columbus, involved with NERO since he was 15. "It's been at these games that I've formed some of my closest friendships."
For more information, visit www.warweb.org.