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Enter Angaron, where brave deeds and grim battles rule

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's a fine Sunday afternoon in Frick Park and people are at play: Walking dogs, flying kites, locking lips, hacking at each other with swords and battle axes.

HACK! A young man loses an arm, but with his other keeps swinging his blade and ...

WHACK! He takes off one leg of his assailant, who falls to his stump but presses forward and ...

SMACK! SMASH! Their swords clash in what swiftly becomes a futile exchange, as both drop to the ground, dying ... dead.

Cameron "Lethitamass" Webster takes aim with a foam-tipped arrow. He is member of Angaron, a local chapter of Dagorhir, which was started 25 years ago in Washington, D.C., inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien and medieval history.

Then they stand, sweaty and breathing hard but smiling, ready to "lay on" again.

Welcome to Angaron, the local "realm" of a national group called Dagorhir, which describes itself as "a game, a sport, a martial art -- a chance to live an adventure." Its inspiration is the fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien, but it plays less like Dungeons & Dragons and more like paintball meets lacrosse.

We're talking full contact, albeit with foam-padded weapons. Armor is an option for participants, who assume the costumes and other characteristics of personas from pre-firearms history or fantasy. Some get way into the role-playing, but Angaron's main thrust is to meet on battlefields like this one at Frick, all year 'round, and "boff" each other's brains out.

Their Sunday afternoon practices draw plenty of stares from people watching from a distance.

But for a really interesting experience, walk over to the tree where flies the Angaron flag and step into their world.

"You'll notice people talk very funnily," says Cameron Webster, a charming 28-year-old with a Mohawkish haircut and a long goatee who works in a sheet metal warehouse. Everybody here calls him "Lithitamass," which is his character's name. He wears plate armor that he made out of 16-gauge steel.

TINK! TINK! A woman can't resist tapping his chest plate as she passes with her own chainmail-and-leather top tinkling.

Lithitamass' armor is painted an evil red and black, from his "grieves," or shin plates, to his crowning glory -- a most malevolently masked helmet of leather, steel and chain mail, topped with a long braided gray ponytail. Was it ripped from a vanquished foe?

"Sally Beauty Supply," Webster says with a smile that is as disarming as Lithitamass can be.

He and his friends step in and out of character constantly, and fantasy and reality are jumbled together like the duffel-loads of equipment spread under the tree: Shields, bows and other medieval contraptions amid instant cameras, a CD player and a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew.

Foam-covered weapons

The weapons, or "boffers," are wickedly clever homemade creations, with cores of plastic pipe or fiberglass rod cushioned with close-cell foam and covered in fabric and duct tape. Arrows are tipped with fluffy puffs so they can't poke eyes out, since missiles are the only weapons that are "head legal" -- that is, the only ones that can be aimed above the neck.

Safety is paramount in Dagorhir's rule book, and weapons are checked for compliance. Their classifications are color coded -- yellow for missiles such as arrows and javelins, green for stabbing (daggers, spears), blue for most other hand weapons (swords, flails) and red for more massively destructive two-handed ones (maces, halberds).

Battle is scored in an honor system that grants weapons and body parts certain powers. For instance, two solid strikes by a red weapon will destroy a shield, and so you must drop the shield. Get hit in the arm and you must hold the arm behind your back and not use it; get hit in the leg and you have to crawl on one knee; get hit twice in the same limb and you're dead.

Does it ever hurt?

"About as much as a good pillow fight," says Lashiec, a k a 18-year-old Jim Pardini of Baldwin Borough, who lay "bleeding to death" on the battlefield while some of the 19 others took a water and smoke break.

The fighting can get quite serious, but most fighters keep a sense of humor. Lithitamass decorates his arrowheads with smiley faces. Sayings such as "If you can read this, I didn't miss" festoon those of his fellow archer, Askarus, a name Jefferson's Andrew Parroccini adapted from biology class and Ascaris -- a type of tapeworm.

Angaron, son of Dagorhir

Angaron's realm leader is Jason "Banditt" Adams, who cuts an imposing figure with his reddish-blond mane flowing over the top of his black cloak, which pulls back to reveal a skull face tooled into his plate armor (hey, style counts, too). The 23-year-old graphic designer, who lives with or near several members in Greenfield, started out doing Civil War and other historical re-enacting. He joined this chapter soon after it revived in 1998, and says it's now growing with a total of 100 members, including satellite groups in South Park and Ford City.

Most members are in their late teens or 20s -- you have to be 16 to fight without a guardian present -- but Adams says they're thinking about forming a junior group.

Andrew Parroccini, whose Angaron name is Askarus stands ready for combat behind his homemade shield.

Dagorhir was started 25 years ago by Washington, D.C.-area college friends who were into Tolkien and medieval history. Now it has more than 30 chapters across the country, many of which have been getting a boost from the "Lord of the Rings" movies and hype. One of the newest was just launched in McKeesport -- the Realm of the WhiteSunTide, which has a pirates theme, and we don't mean baseball.

Dagorhir is just one of an array of live-action role-playing, or LARPing groups, including the better-known Society for Creative Anachronism, which holds its annual "Pennsic Wars" just north of Pittsburgh.

The annual Dagorhir war, Angarok, is held at a Cambridge, Ohio, campground. Many from Angaron will be going thither this weekend.

That's why Banditt was drilling them in fighting together as a unit in open and closed formations.

But so bloodthirsty is his motley band that they couldn't be held back from attacking each other.

Words can hardly depict the chaos of flying arrows, flailing weapons and running and grunting fighters. Two teenage girls walking past where the nearby playground meets Beechwood Boulevard summed up their opinion by yelling in unison: "YOU LOOK LIKE IDIOTS!"

Such words bounce off these folks, who value diversity.

There, with the faux fur over his shoulders, is the Viking Einar, a name customer service representative James Sperduto admits he borrowed from a Kirk Douglas character in the 1958 movie "The Vikings."

There, in a full suit of exquisitely hand-crafted leather samurai armor is Scion -- "mundane" name Luis Torrefranca -- who is finishing up at the University of Pittsburgh in computer engineering while working at its law school.

There, in a baggy T-shirt, shorts and running shoes is a member so new he doesn't have a name yet, other than Robert Bailie. The 13-year-old from Brookline, who hopes to become a knight, says he loves Angaron "because it's just fun. You get to kill people and stuff."

His mother, Liz Bailie, watching nearby, smiles and shrugs: "It keeps the kids out of trouble."

Warrior maidens

There are several women players (including one who came from work wearing the blue-and-red garb of Kentucky Fried Chicken). One is Brookline's Deneen Sherlock, a 36-year-old mother of five and amateur writer who portrays one of her fictional Celtic characters, Ciara Rose.

"It gives me ideas, especially for battles. It's really helping my descriptions," she says, after a brutal dagger fight with Scion that leaves her giggling. Besides being a good workout, "It's a great stress reliever. You can go full force on someone and they don't get hurt. What more could you ask for?"

Later in the afternoon, the group splits into two, and half go into the woods. Then the others go after them. For a while, all you can hear are the birds, squishy footfalls on the trail and occasional whispers.

Suddenly arrows are whizzing past your ears. Attack!

Banditt cries out as an arrow finds its mark on his face. Einar howls in pain as he takes one, two blows to the head by a flail Ciara Rose wields with great gusto, if not accuracy. In fact, Einar cries out "Hold!" which suspends the battle.

"Let me see if my glasses are broken!"

He's hurting, dizzy, nauseous, trembling. Everybody's muddy and gasping. Slowly, they cool down. Then, they regroup to do it again.

The Circle of Foam

As the sun sets, they end the long afternoon with "the Circle of Foam." They make a ring with their foam weapons and two fighters step inside and go at it until one is "dead." Then the next person steps in to try to do in the survivor, until they're all dead-tired.

From the distance, you might wonder what the heck is going on, but from ringside, you can hear them say "Sorry!" and "Nice shot, dude," joking and laughing.

When a group of newcomers turns to go, Lithitamass walks over, holds out his hand and offers a high compliment: "Nice fightin' with you!"

Then a bunch of them do as other hungry weekend warriors:

They go to Eat 'N Park.

For more information, visit the Web site www.angaron.org.

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.

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