On a cloudy Saturday in May, about two dozen people prepped for battle at Abbott Loop Community Park.
Wielding foam swords and shields and sporting medieval-esque clothing, they marched down a hill to a flat, grassy space to pick teams. Things kicked off with a game in which one team tried to defend the "castle" — a taped-off area of the grass.
These men, women and kids are part of one of Anchorage's LARP groups, short for live action role-playing. You may have seen them running across one of the soccer fields at Russian Jack Springs Park on a sunny day — their usual spot in the summer — seemingly in their own world.
At the South Anchorage park that Saturday, some passersby stopped to watch the game unfold. A woman walking her dog paused on the sidewalk. Two boys on bikes, perched on top of a hill, observed at a distance.
Jason Chapman didn't seem to pay much attention to the onlookers. During the workweek, he's an office manager for the state of Alaska. But on Saturday at Abbott Loop he was Gorin, local executive officer of Anchorage Operations for Amtgard of Alaska Inc., an affiliate of the international Amtgard LARP group.
Wearing a long, faux-fur cloak, he explained how he got into LARP years ago. He and a friend saw a flier for Amtgard and decided to swing by a meetup "just to essentially make fun of people," he said.
But after talking with the people involved, Chapman said he was intrigued and realized it was "more than just a couple of goofballs hitting each other with sticks."
"We're just normal people — we put on the funny clothes, although realistically, it's just a uniform," he said. "If you were playing baseball, you'd put on funny pants."
Hitting people with swords made out of foam — a material used to avoid causing injury — is definitely part of LARP, but several Anchorage LARPers at the Saturday shindig stressed the strategy, and fun, involved in the games.
"It's things that you grew up playing, like capture the flag, games that are kind of like football, tag, king of the hill, stuff like that — with foam weapons," said Cassandra Sweetman, who said she got into LARP about a year ago.
"Anyone who's familiar with any kind of competitive video game would probably totally understand the objectives," said Chapman, adding that the Anchorage Amtgard group, called Lupine Moon, follows a rule book.
At least two Lupine Moon members at Abbott Loop Community Park Saturday had served in the military. Among them was Matt Ault, who said LARP has helped with his post-traumatic stress disorder.
LARP can also be a community for people, said Sean Bascom, who was involved with Amtgard years ago.
"The reality of it is a very broad and accepting group," said Bascom, sitting on a bench at Russian Jack Springs Park on a recent sunny day. "And a lot of it is because the people that did find (LARP) were those closet nerds that were outcasted and social pariahs that use it as a place to fit in."
The Alaska Amtgard chapter also has groups in Fairbanks, the Valley, Kenai and Homer, according to its website. There are roughly 250 active members across the state, Chapman says. An Amtgard atlas posted online lists chapters all over the U.S. and even in Croatia.
Bascom and his wife, Jennifer Bascom, are building up a non-Amtgard LARP group in Anchorage and plan to put more of an emphasis on the role-playing aspects of LARP. Participants don't have to be human — fairies and elves are some of the many options on the table.
Jennifer says she also wants to make the new group, called Rising LARP, more kid-friendly. (With Amtgard, kids are allowed but have to be 14 to fight.)
"I like people to use their imagination and make sure everybody is included and have fun," said Jennifer, whose LARP persona is a gypsy. "And that's what really Rising is going to be about, is being completely inclusive."
The Bascoms — who met playing the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons — recalled how they used to LARP with a player who was blind and operated as a healer.
People not into one-on-one combat can also shoot fake arrows or "cast spells" — which can be stress balls covered in cloth.
Not everyone in Lupine Moon — which was founded in 2010 — has to be into combat either, Chapman said.
"There's a million ways to participate. And it's not like, say, football, where if you're not literally playing football there's really nothing for you to do," he said. "You don't need to be athletically superior to be MVP in the game."
More than just Saturdays
For Chapman and others, LARP is more than just a weekly meetup. Amtgard's Alaska chapter, called the Principality of Northreach, has a statewide board of directors and the group's bylaws are a 38-page document.
Events also go beyond games in the park. Amtgard will have a presence at the 3 Barons Renaissance Fair in Anchorage this weekend. Chapman and other LARPers recently traveled to Fairbanks for an event, and there's an August get-together on the Alaska State Fair grounds that typically draws a big crowd, he said.
And in February on the Kenai Peninsula, there's a "dungeon crawl," when LARPers rent out Skyview High School in Soldotna and "build a dungeon in it and people just run through it and fight," Champan said.
Creating a persona isn't required, but some people get pretty into coming up with a character. One player decided to be a baker and "whenever we traveled somewhere he would bring fresh bread to give out to people," Chapman said. He wore a baking hat and even had a "war apron."
Most of the LARPers at Abbott Loop Saturday wore medieval-style clothing, but "if someone wanted to do the whole Lord of the Rings wizard thing, that's totally OK too," Chapman said.
Chapman got into leather working through LARP and has a business called White Bear Leather. For Jennifer Bascom, the creativity of costume-making is a big draw into the LARP world.
"I love to sew. I love to create," she said. Toward the end of an interview she pulled up a photo album on her phone of costumes she's made over the years.
Chapman said LARP can also instill confidence in younger players.
"These people who join as kids or young adults, they start learning things like leadership skills," Chapman said. "They might run for an officer position in a chapter, and they start becoming a peer leader. And then they become an organization leader, and they're learning all kinds of valuable skills that way."
Still, LARPers in Anchorage say there are plenty of misconceptions about what they do.
"The biggest hurdle to get around is the perception that LARP is for the socially awkward nerdy kid that has no friends," Sean Bascom said.
But once that stereotype is disproved, LARP can become a lot of fun, the Bascoms say.
"Once you start getting into it, you wanna go do it every weekend," Jennifer Bascom said.