Sunday, April 29, 2012

[SUNDAY READ + WATCH] Gates of Fire Was... Pretty Cold

Pete “Alistair” Walsh scans the crest of a green hill ahead of him. To his rear, a handful of tightly formed, iron-clad sentries await with blood red shields raised, spears thrust out. They are his men – a unit he proudly serves as commander.

Rising over the cold, stiff horizon before the Roman 14th Legion sentry are dozens of leathered orcs bearing axes and crude flails. Yesterday, Walsh was an office worker. Today, he raises his gladius and the hardened Roman 14th leap into a melee.

An orcish arrow whizzes past the Romans’ tower shields and finds an infantryman’s neck. Luckily, the padding on the tip bounces the arrow away.

Most would call this fantasy, but thousands all around the world have another name: The Dagorhir Battle Games.

Founded in 1977, it’s a sport that delights anachronists everywhere. Take the medieval fantasy set pieces and attire of a renaissance faire or Medieval Times experience, add safe, padded implements of war and you arrive at the general idea. Of the myriad organizations that gather to "live-action role play" - a term that most Dagorhir participants revile - it is the largest such organization in the U.S.

Starting Friday and ending today, Somerset’s Pioneer Park Campground played host to the season’s regional Dagorhir event, called “Gates of Fire.” This year, the event drew over 300 “stick jocks” from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Tennessee, New York, Florida, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and D.C.

Mike “Erekose” Boone, 47, from Springfield, Va., is the president of Dagorhir and has been hosting and competing in medieval battle games since he was 18.

“The game has evolved,” he says. “It’s really grown.” Since its inception 35 years ago, Dagorhir has grown to recognize 150 chapters all over the world, including: Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, England, Germany, Japan, Iceland and Australia.

Locally, Dagorhir’s once-a-year national event brought in 1,500 warriors to Cooper’s Lake in Slippery Rock. Somerset’s Gates of Fire event is currently in its sixth year and averages 350 competitors.

This year, the Gates attendees set up their camps - some lavish and ornate, others functional. The Barbarian Trading Post near the center of the meet accepted no cash, only barter. Hooded figures milled around Pioneer Park while others strutted, bearing medals and ribbons on their sashes that herald past glories. And on the first night, the campers' fortitudes would be tested by 28 degree sleeping temperatures.

“It’s so much fun,” exclaims Boone at the check-in booth referred to by the jocks as “the Troll.” Boone is an enterprise architect – responsible for high-level planning and structuring of enterprises. And although he’s approaching 50, he still calls his Dagorhir volunteers “dude.” It's a reflection on the young soul that can appreciate the chaos and pageantry of the hobby.

“Organizing an event like this is interesting,” Boone says. “It’s more than ‘if you build it, they will come.’” Behind Boone, check-in volunteers chime in that Dagorhir is more sport than roleplaying.

And although staged medieval warfare invites the colorful and the costumed, Dagorhir shys away from the high fantasy of Tolkien, focusing on proper melee combat over the use of “spells,” like other battle game groups of its ilk.

Boone, the tireless host and organizer, works in the off-time between events, holding practices in his chapter’s area, called “the realm of Aratari.” We know it as the greater D.C./Maryland area.

Players are taught proper weapon stance and attack form at these “camps” and have a chance to hone the deadly expertise needed to take victory on the field – much like any athlete trains.
Camping at Dagorhir events has become somewhat of a family tradition for the Boone family. Boone's wife has since hung up her foam sword but his son stepped onto the battlefield for the first time last year.

"The kids, especially my daughter, really look forward to the events," he says.

Paul “Warthog” Seiberlich is a 41-year-old retired pro indoor soccer player. His time wearing #21 as a backup goalie for the 1995 Washington Warthogs is what made his namesake.

With a background in professional massage therapy and current pursuit of a nursing degree, Paul says the athleticism and strategy of the Dagorhir games keep him coming back each year.

“What brought me to Dag was the team concept of people working towards a goal,” says Seiberlich.

His girlfriend, Kim “Rayne” Johnson, corrects him, “You came to Dag to beat the crap out of people.”

Johnson, who is an ER nurse at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Md., says she feels Dagorhir provides a creative and physical outlet that is unique.

“It feels really good to hit something,” she says. “Now we have a mechanism to release that energy.”

For 4 to 5 hours, the gladiators charge in units - roaring - towards each other. Individual fights play out as waves of sharp-colored banners crash against a wall of locked shields. It's a lot like getting to walk around the set of HBO's "Game of Thrones" - while a scene is being filmed.

Skirmishes break out between rival units and alliances between groups of players can be formed in objective scenarios like "capture the flag."

Both Johnson and Seiberlich were on-hand as medics for Gates of Fire. Either combatants or non, field medics can quickly identify sprains and provide basic medical attention.

"The number one thing we have in this event is safety. That's like, rule zero," says Seiberlich. As a physical therapist that was professionally employed by members of the Washington Redskins, Seiberlich - "Hoggy" to his friends - knows a lot about athletic conditioning and injury rehab.

"When you see someone get hit hard on a Sunday, I'm at their house on a Tuesday," says Seiberlich.

After wounds are mended and showers are taken, “the feast” begins. But instead of roasted beast on a spit, the fighters make do with standard camping fare, as well as homemade meatballs, ham and the like.

Seiberlich also makes a habit of bringing his masseuse table to the campsite, charging Dagorhir players a discounted fee to have him work the rigors of battle from their muscles.

Dancers sway around bonfires and kerosene heaters while the tired and sore combatants ice themselves down with a cold one – or two. The revelers will carry on well into the morning, according to Dagorhir veterans. Some player teams, or units, distill their own period-specific spirits especially for the event.

It’s a large party, happening outside of time. Dagorhir combatants enjoy an escape from the humdrum of their day-to-day lives. For some, it’s about exerting a sphere of control larger than their real-life environment may allow.

Adam “Arc” Ledzion of the unit “Gestiguiste” enjoys Dagorhir as a creative outlet.

“Who would you rather be: Adam, grill area manager at McDonald’s or Arc, sentinel of Gestiguiste?”

When trying to convey their enthusiasm to others, most refer to the bonds and friendships forged on the front lines of a Dagorhir battle.

 “One thing we really like about Dagorhir is it’s open to anyone who wants to get involved,” says Seiberlich. “There are several other sports or games out there but I’m involved in Dag because they’re the friendliest people.”

Boone makes it much simpler.

"If our opponents are having a good time and enjoying themselves, we've won."


  1. Just wanted to pop by and say thank you for the excellent article! As a five-year Dagorhir vet, it's frustrating to see so many hurriedly-written news pieces that don't "get" the game, so it means a lot to see something thoughtful and positive that nerds and noobs alike can engage. All the fighters I've heard talking about this article are thrilled with it!

  2. Thanks for the awesome read. Though I couldn't make this event this year, your descriptions are great and I wish I had been there all the more! Its refreshing to see someone take their time, to get to know their subject, before writing a report on a usually misunderstood sport. Though I have been part of the game 6 years, I do not fight. This game is not just for the awesome fighters we have. We have a great sense of community and connection and you could never find a better, more true, group of friends than the ones you find here. I dance and entertain, I listen as a good friend should, and I do massage as well to help keep this wonderful group going. Everyone does their part to ensure others happiness and thus ensuring their own!

    Lady Nightshade of Mirkwood (Gold Diamond)