On a recent Sunday in Volunteer Park, a medieval melee broke out.
The sound of rustling chainmail commingled with deafening thwacks of foam swords against flesh. An armored knight dropped to his knees, raising his spear in anguish and triumph.
"I'm about to whoop somebody's ass ... Oh, I'm dead!"
A few dozen fallen soldiers dotted the field, some sprawled out, their breastplates stained red and their swords and shields saturated with the blood of their enemies. Others with lost limbs helplessly watched the fight progress, unable to assist their comrades.
In their minds, the grassy field where they lay near the Seattle Asian Art Museum was not just a grassy field, but the mystical land of Dargarth a shadowy realm where fighters, mages, rangers and thieves form alliances, plot against their enemies and, above all, relish the heat of battle.
Dargarth is a LARP -- a live-action role-playing game, in which participants act out their characters' actions in a fictional landscape. Think real-life Dungeons & Dragons with a hearty helping of bruises and adrenaline, instead of dice.
LARPing is a popular activity across the country, with hundreds of chapters, embraced by both theatrical and sporting types. It's no wonder there are at least five active LARPs in and around Seattle, a city with a strong tech community, a do-it-yourself mentality and a penchant for the outdoors.
"Part of it is improv theater. No one uses the word 'improv,' but you're telling a story collaboratively, and you're saying 'yes' (an improv tenet to embrace the unexpected) like the improv guys do," said John Senner, 30, who founded Dargarth in 2010 and goes by Count Andor. "And not every LARPer is working toward this. Some people come because they want to fight. Some are there because they want to hang out with their friends or build armor."
From theatrical vampire and steampunk game systems to medieval combat games that leave out role-play altogether (Dargarth's current president Jerry Lynde calls them "geeks in denial"), there's a LARP for everyone.
"It's ridiculously fun to run around in a park and beat on people with foam swords," said Lynde, 43, whose character is a "Lord of the Rings"-inspired orc. "There's nothing quite like it."
Dargarth has an intricate system of governing rules that dictate fight outcomes and character advancement as countries battle over hexes on an imaginary map. LARPers attend biweekly Sunday battles and weekend-long camping trips called adventures, where players' allegiances are tested as their countries fight to take control of land. Players advance in stature in the game depending on how many battles and adventures they attend.
"I'm a peer of the crown in two fake places," Senner said in a phone interview from Boulder, Colo., where he lives now. "My wife is looking at me now."
"Dargarth is a simpler and easier to understand game than a lot of other LARPs," said Harris Hoffman, 26, who helped Senner start Dargarth in 2010 and goes by Earl Arminius during events. "It keeps the physical aspects of other games, but it also has a lot of the content and depth of games that have more role-play."
Some come for the fantasy, some solely for the sport.
"I wanted to dress up like a knight and beat up some nerds," said Daniel Byrne, 25, who wields a mace called The Innkeeper's Daughter.
"It's more fun than ultimate frisbee and it's better exercise than video games."
For others, LARP has led to love. Lynde met his wife, Aleeshia Viktora, on the field of battle in Montana.
"I'm trying not to sound egotistical, but I'm a decent fighter, and here's this little girl come up at me on the field," said Lynde. "I thought, 'Cool, I'll take it easy on her. I'll be nice.' Then she just lit me up with swords and was beating my butt. I was like, 'What was that?' ... So I started taking her seriously."
When the two moved to Seattle four years ago, they joined Dargarth and founded the Holy Order of Mrdur, an enlightened monster nation. Though Viktora no longer comes to Dargarth events, Lynde still participates, wearing a black and cream surcoat, a Utilikilt and unearthly green contact lenses, and wielding a foam great sword that inspires terror and panic on the battlefield.
Nick Costa, also known as Brawn, is the group's go-to weapons guru. Costa has sword construction down to a science, layering foams of different densities around a fiberglass core to safely absorb the impact of a hit.