The knights next door

Feb. 9, 2011, 11:29 a.m. | By Sebastian Medina-Tayac | 9 years, 8 months ago

This is a battle like no other. Javelins soar over the slowly setting sun. Swords bash past shields and fell enemies. Shouted orders, the scratching of feet on dry grass, and muffled thuds permeate the ambient hum of the Interstate. Eventually, an armistice is called. "Five minute water break, guys!" shouts one. Weapons made of Plexiglas, foam and tube socks hit the ground. The fighters sit in a circle and take turns proposing new drill ideas, joking and laughing. This is Dagorhir.

An international medieval-style combat game organization, Dagorhir has lured thousands of players seeking a physical outlet, fantasy and excitement onto the battlefield. At Montgomery College's Dagorhir club, players participate in a variety of types of battle games all involving combatants "attacking" each other with padded reproductions of medieval weapons. Transcending the worlds of role-playing and Dungeons and Dragons, Dagorhir allows teens to indulge the insatiable joy of safe, friendly, fun swordplay.

More than the rings

On her way home from Silver Spring one summer day, senior Eyerusalem Sahlu and her friend, senior Lauren Rust, passed by the yard in front of Montgomery College's Takoma Park/ Silver Spring campus, about 3.5 miles from Blair. They saw a Dagorhir practice in progress, and, interested, they signed up and have been playing ever since.

The leader of the club, a man who identifies solely as "Warthog," says that cases like Sahlu and Rust's aren't unusual. "All the time people just come by and want to know what's happening," he says.

Warthog refuses to give his name, even for journalistic purposes. A Montgomery College sophomore (in his 30s), former professional soccer player and trained medic, he boasts that very few people in Dagorhir, even those he's known for years, know his real name. "Imagine spending three or four years with a group of people," he explains. "They're your best friends, they have the keys to your house, but you don't know their real names. That's exciting." According to Sahlu, absolutely everyone in Dagorhir knows each other by their pseudonyms, to create alternate identities within the Dagorhir world.

Senior Ori Perl, who goes by "Drizzt Do' Urden" at Dagorhir, has played at Montgomery College and another group, or "unit", for about two years. A fantasy enthusiast, Perl sees Dagorhir partly as an outlet for his interest. "I generally try to avoid reality," he says.

Sahlu, by contrast, considers Dagorhir as more of a creative outlet than deviation from reality, appreciating entering a situation where she has to think and strategize.

According to Warthog, people join for very different reasons, and have distinctive expectations. "People in Dagorhir come from different backgrounds," he explains. "Some people, like me, come for the sports and team aspect. Others are into the whole [Dungeons and Dragons] thing. And others say, ‘I don't really do anything else, maybe I'll try this.'"

Foam frenzy

Curious first-time players may probably find the most distinctive feature of Dagorhir to be the presence of foam weapons. But these are no ordinary toys. These instruments of war are home-made and composed usually of a plastic frame, a foam body, a fabric shell, and lots of duct tape.

Sahlu and Rust borrow the weapons Warthog makes and provides at practice, but more experienced Perl has been smithing swords of his own for a while, which, for him, is quite fun in itself. He trades them, several at a time, to friends for other weapons.

Even George Lucas would be humbled by the loss of limb involved in Dagorhir. Players unlucky enough to meet the wrong end of one of these weapons must fake disembodiment of the attacked limb by putting it behind their backs. Yes, this does mean the game involves much comical hopping and crawling. A touch to the torso is a fatal blow, but in Dagorhir, players fall theatrically, run to a "resurrection tree" with their weapons on their heads, and return to the fray.

The village of pillage

While Dagorhir units meet up once a week to practice fighting, they meet with other units in organized battles about once a month. Sahlu, having only attended the Thanksgiving battle in November, said that besides the six hours spent being defeated by cold as much as by enemies, overall, the battle was not as competitive or "hard-core" as she expected. On the contrary, players attest to the positive social environment of Dagorhir, within and between units.

Dagorhir is organized into large geographic "realms," and smaller, group-oriented "units," which each have distinctive coats of arms, weapons, ranking systems, and races (including orcs, elves, and even humans). Warthog runs the Montgomery College Dagorhir club under the unit Gestiguiste, which, according to Perl, also hosts many non-combat events, such as feasts, parties, movie nights and talent shows.

Sahlu feels a different attitude among the Dagorhir community, which lacks the judgment and social pressures present at Blair. "At school, we get weird looks," she says. "But at Dagorhir, they take us for who we are… You can be different, but share a common interest."

For whatever reasons they joined and stayed, players all describe the experience as simply, inexplicably fun. Dagorhir delivers what they come for, practice after practice, be it the opportunity to wage war with close friends, escape the mundane or simply let loose. For Sahlu, the four-hour long practices every week bring a bit of intensity into her life. "At school I feel like a zombie," she says. "At Dagorhir, there's this excitement and thrill… a challenge that brings me back to life."

Sebastian Medina-Tayac. More »

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