Late last month, nearly 2,000 warriors from around the country journeyed to Cooper's Lake campground to participate in one of the largest battles of their lives. On a vast open field surrounded by the dense woods of Western Pennsylvania, armies of elves, goblins, orcs, the undead, Roman legionnaires, Celtic axemen, and Norse raiders fought before a castle rampart. Some cleaved through their enemies with five foot broadswords; others fired arrows from the shadows.
This is Ragnarok, the annual weeklong "end of the world" celebration for the game Dagorhir, a style of fantasy-inspired battle gaming that has become one of the most popular events of its kind in the United States. Similar to live action role playing (LARP) games, Dagorhir draws from a pool of inspiration that includes Dungeons & Dragons, J.R.R. Tolkien, medieval swordplay, crafting, and role-playing. Attendees can take up arms in twenty-four official battles (in addition to the countless informal skirmishes), disport themselves at nightly potlucks and parties, refine their swordsmanship at tutorials, buy a new set of armor at one of the merchants, and otherwise immerse themselves in communal reverie.
Unlike more rules-heavy LARPing games, Dagorhir eschews traditional role-playing elements such as level-gaining, magic spells, and the use of dice. It aims for an intuitive combat style that is easy to learn and fun to play. If someone hits you in the arm with an axe, you pull that arm behind you back because it's been "cut off." If you get hit in the chest, without armor, you're dead. Hopefully you won't get hit in the head because that's considered mean-spirited and generally against the rules.
It's this mixture of the love of the fight and the mythology of fantasy that makes Dagorhir unique: more sanguine than a renaissance faire but less self-serious than most LARPs. It also makes it one of the most strange, welcoming, and energetic experiences you can have while sleeping in a tent.
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At ten a.m. on Saturday, June 27, Ragnarok looked more like the site of Noah's flood than the Nordic twilight of the gods. Five days of rain had turned the ground into a spongy archipelago of deracinated turf and mud. At "Troll," the administrative oupost of Ragnarok, it seemed as if the entire operation might collapse under the next gust of wind. This day was supposed to feature the week's final cataclysm, when all the attendees would come together in an epic battle royale. Bad weather had already cancelled most of the week's fighting, and event organizers were beginning to worry that Ragnarok would end without a showpiece fight.
The head of Troll is Michelle Dellagnese, who plays under the name Galadriel and has been attending Ragnarok for thirteen years. She arrived wearing a deep crimson cape, ready to wrap up registration for the day. The final count for this year: 1,933 people. While waiting for a break in the rain she reminisced about previous Ragnaroks thwarted by rain. "Remember Rag 21, when we made that slip'n'slide?" she asked her "second" who identified herself as Twinkle. Eight years ago, after yet another battle was frustrated by rain, some enterprising warriors tore down tarps, aligned them down the steepest hill, cast aside their weapons, and spent the afternoon trying to outdo each other in feats of endurance and ingenuity. Ogre, who stands 6'8", won the contest for longest slide. "It's on YouTube," Twinkle says.
Will Scarlit, the event coordinator and de facto leader of Ragnarok, arrived in a rugged golfcart with deep treads on the tires and a robust gas-powered engine. His garb, a lustrous cerulean jacket with coarse green trousers, looked straight out of Sherwood Forest. He had a disarming, almost shy way of talking. He conferred with the others about the prospects for fighting today: "Wet weapons get a lot heavier and start presenting a health concern, so we can't fight when it is raining. But the radar says we should have some sun by this afternoon." His faith in the radar was persistent and hopeful.
During Ragnarok, Cooper's Lake becomes its own small village. In addition to several large fields primed for various battles — defending the castle from invaders, breaking open a prison of captured allies, and capturing a holy relic — there is a large cabin used for the Ragnarok University classes, a children's playground, several restaurants, and Merchant's Row, where medieval weapons, armor and other garb is sold.
At the Brothers Cross Trading Company, the owner Maria McDonough, who plays as Libby, sells handmade clothing, from simple tunics to intricate embroidered dresses with elven patterns. Earlier in the week she suffered a setback when a gale of wind blew her tent away, covering many of her garments in mud, an event she referred to as "Merchmageddon." So many people volunteered to help her recover that the store was up and running for the Midnight Madness shopping event, one of her most profitable nights to date.
Further down Merchant's Row is the enormously popular Barbarian Trading Post, an open bazaar where money is banned and players trade their wares using a mixture of business acumen, whimsy and charity. Each year there is a competition to see who can trade up the most: one year an enterprising kid started with a handful of bottle caps, slowly accumulated enough goods to open a stall, and ended with a suit of armor.
Ragnarok is organized roughly like a modern European state. The War Council is where rules are debated and official staff members are elected. Representatives from each camp can vote, and anyone can attend. If Ragnarok were a country, Troll would be the department of state, Ragnarok University the department of education, Medics the department of health, Security and Weapons Check the National Guard and the police, and Merchant-O-Crat the Chamber of Commerce.
These positions, some of which demand ten days of attendance and countless hours of planning, are not compensated. In fact, everyone involved with the execution of Ragnarok are volunteers, which might explain their sense of community and shared responsibility. Throughout the event, "Can I get you anything?" followed "Hello," like a mantra.
Even without the foam-based warfare, it would be daunting to organize a campsite the size of a small town with no paid staff, but it comes naturally to Scarlit, who has been attending Dagorhir events since he was a child. "I was ten years old," he recalls, "and running around barefoot in a terrycloth tunic."
As Scarlit got older, he assumed the role of organizing security: making sure fire safety protocol was followed, that rules keeping people from being maimed were enforced, and so on. But as the event became more popular organizers had to think in terms of thousands, rather than hundreds of people. "All of a sudden you couldn't know everyone by name," Scarlit reflects.
Enough people were bringing children that they needed to figure out the rules for minors in games, as well as plan child-friendly activities. Twenty-four hour shifts for security and first aid needed to be established to account for the ceaseless activity. They also needed to start organizing their "arts and sciences," a term Will used to refer to the craftsmanship, martial arts, and lore that developed around the battles of Ragnarok. "I wanted to make the event more consistent year to year and give non-combatants a larger role to play," he says. "But this is still a battle event. It's not like we're going to become another renaissance faire."
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Since it has been going on for thirty years now, Ragnarok draws players of all ages. Steve Foster, who plays as Timmourne, owns Darkwater Arms and Armor, where he sells handmade leather armor, and has been attending since Ragnarok 8 back in 1993.
"Back then, it was much smaller, in the low hundreds," he says. "We were a bunch of poor college kids. We basically dumpster-dived for armor and weapons."
As the game developed and attracted more followers, the world that sustained it became more elaborate. Costumes became intricate and bespoke. Timmourne continued to play until he broke his wrist in thirteen places during a battle. The accident exposed the fragility of his life at the time: His wife, who played as well, was pregnant with a third child and a more serious accident could have plunged his whole family into poverty. He got a comfortable union job at an elevator company and didn't play for ten years, until his son Logan discovered a box of his old costumes and pleaded for his father to take him to the next Ragnarok. He was welcomed back as if a gulf of time and experience hadn't separated him from other players.
"When I came back, I met all the old guys: Dominous of Rome, Blackhawk, Graymael," he says. "Some of them had a family like me, but they were all here still playing."
Graymael is a name that echoed through the camp as perhaps the oldest of the old-timers: a fast-talking wag who was there at the beginning of Ragnarok and has been coming ever since. He related the history of Ragnarok while carrying milk crates of equipment from one place to the next, drinking orange juice, playing games with his daughter, saluting passersby, and collecting weapons. Dagorhir was started in 1977 by a man named Bryan Wiese and his friends, who wanted to create a battle game inspired by Tolkien's writing and medieval warfare. Two years later David Vierling, who goes by Graymael, started playing. After one of Dagorhir's battles was featured on the PM Magazine television show, interest grew and new chapters began forming across the East Coast and Midwest.
"One day I called up the head of this group called Middle Earth in Illinois just to see what was up," said Graymael. "The leader joked to me, 'I know you guys from DC think you're tough, but if [you] ever had to fight us we'd send you crying home,' and I did the adult thing and said 'bring it on.' So we got out a map and decided to meet halfway in Ohio, and that was the first Ragnarok."
Like Timmourne, it was the people that kept Graymael coming back.
"Ragnarok is an intelligent, silly crowd. We don't take things too seriously and just want to have fun," he says. "You dress up, fight, die, get up, and fight again. You'll see a lot of people getting up and giving a high-five to the guy who just kicked their butt, and then spending the whole night drinking with him around campfires."
In the Ragnarok University building, some of the younger attendees set up a game room, roaring over a session of Cards Against Humanity as it rained outside. Another table was split between Hnefatafl, a Norse precursor to chess, and Magic: The Gathering. This was one of the only places outside tents where players could meet and socialize away from the rain.
"No one is talking about what they do for work or money," said Valkyrie, a young woman who was in the games room during a particularly heavy downpour. "They're talking about everything else, and really connecting."
Valkyrie is the head of Ragnarok University, the training camp for new recruits and old hand alike. This year she organized fifty-two hours of free classes, on subjects ranging from two-handed sword fighting to medieval printmaking and mead brewing. She is part of a younger generation of players who are actively working to expand and enrich Ragnarok. Molly Doyen, who plays as Ivy, another one of the younger camp leaders, started her own realm, House of Arakis, in Nevada. Her house's founding principle was that all fighters would be welcome, and that even in a competitive battle game, there was no need for macho brutality.
"I was really inspired by a knight named The Armored Rose, who was one of the earlier woman warriors who became famous. I wanted to start a realm that could find more fighters like her," she said, while observing the game of Hnefatafl. "I know that's a flowery world peace concept, but hey, it's attainable."
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By the late afternoon it became apparent that the rain wasn't going to abate. There would be no final battle. Even if the rain broke, most camps had left, the weapons were soaked, and no one wanted to tire themselves before the onerous task of disassembling a muddy tent during a thunderstorm.
However, the mood at camp Drentha, near the shore of the lake, was resilient. Aside from a few coolers and a large bottle of rum, it looked very close to what I imagine a camp of wayward elves, halflings, and craftsmen might have set up in Middle Earth. The tents were constructed using wooden beams, rope and canvas. Considering the weather, these shelters were probably dismal to sleep in, but this didn't seem to diminish the almost supernatural enthusiasm of the members, who gave their names as Kolbern, Phoenix, Zephyr, Emm Ell, Alric, Nwnn the Jinn, Ilsa and Fyaren.
While cars pulled away from campsites, they'd yell "Dragon!" and hide in mock terror — a common Ragnarok way of incorporating automobiles into their microcosm. Ilsa and Fyaren, both Kender (which are "similar to hobbits but they wear shoes") were getting ready to cook French toast over the campfire. Alric, the camp musician, picked at a medieval-like instrument he created himself. Phoenix and Zephyr, who ran the Barbarian Trading Post this year, reminisced about some of their craftier trades.
The members of Drentha, as with most citizens of Ragnarok, have developed a common lore; a shared repertoire of stories and legends, like the time Graymael snuck a human dummy into camp Drentha at night, spooking the residents in the morning, who in their turn snuck the dummy into a neighboring camp. The dummy haunted campgrounds for the rest of the week, until it returned home to Graymael at camp Guard.
Some of the players have become living legends, like Cancer, who wears a custom leather belt that carries twelve bottles of liquor and will dispense mystery shots to anyone brave enough to ask. He's called Cancer because he chain smokes, and he's always happy to share.
"In Mundania, cigarettes give you cancer," runs a saying. "In Ragnarok, Cancer gives you cigarettes."
Event in absentia these characters were present; their sayings, their stories, their identities, now part of a living oral history. And this, perhaps more than anything else, is what explains the feeling of acceptance and belonging that so many of the people here feel is absent from their mundane lives. It's what kept people laughing together in the middle of a rainstorm that took away their battles. Here, for a week, their stories could be heard, repeated, reinterpreted, and recorded somewhere in the annals of oral history: an opportunity for recognition, uniqueness, belonging, and, in some ways, immortality.
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Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson is a writer based in New York City and has written for Prospect, Hopes and Fears, The New Republic, and Film Comment. Follow him on Twitter and Tumblr.
Alex Thebez is an Indonesian photographer and GIF artist currently based in New York.