by Ligaya Scaff
Point Park News Service
On an unseasonably warm November day in Schenley Park, a group of warriors and soldiers waged battle .
One fighter, a fearless samurai, jabbed at enemies with an 8 ft. glaive while blocking body shots.
Clad in handcrafted leather armor, another fighter “died” after receiving one too many fatal hacks with a sword.
Though the weapons are foam padded and the warriors might moonlight as factory workers, engineers or pizza shop employees, Dagorhir Battle Games members experience live action combat, build camaraderie and escape from modernity by donning historical or fantasy inspired garb and personas.
“This is one of the greatest things as far as a group activity,” expressed Jesse Profota, 22, of McKees Rocks who fights under the name “Pinto” while at a recent practice.
“It helps you step out of yourself…and you get to beat people up,” he said with a smile.
The Lord of the Rings meets Fight Club
According to dagorhir.com, the sport began in 1977 by a group of college students who shared a love for J.R.R. Tolkien books and medieval history.
Deriving its name from Tolkien’s Sindarin Elven word for “Battle Lords”, Dagorhir fighters engage in full contact, competitive battles at campgrounds, parks or backyards using foam padded weapons–– usually made with a PVC or fiber glass core.
“ I like to think of it as the evolution of cardboard tube fighting,” added Avalon resident Alan
Hayashi, 28, who elicited agreeable laughs from the eight members at practice.
Promoted through public demonstrations and word of mouth, chapters have sprung up across the country.
The Pittsburgh chapter, Angaron, was founded in the late 90s by Lu Torrefranca, 38, a former Carnegie Mellon student who gave the group its name which translates to “Iron Hills” according to the dictionary in “The Book of Lost Tales”.
Unlike similar groups, such as the Society for Creative Anachronisms, Torrefranca mentioned that Dagorhir fighters forgo the expensive armor and instead pad the weapon which he admitted often looks “like a giant fudgesicle”.
An amiable bunch, the Angaron chapter members never take attendance or collect monthly dues.
“You just get into the fight and have fun,” said John Huston, 30, who casually sipped from a pewter vessel and was given his Spartan soldier persona,“Alexandros”, from a character in the historical warfare novel “Gates of Fire ”.
During battles, Huston wears a red cloak because “ …it is the easiest way to see us on the field and identify the fighter as a Full Spartan.”
Steve Hayashi , a 32 year old Squirrel Hill resident and embedded engineer, spars with opponents in samurai style garb as “ Twolf ”.
With a martial arts background, Hayashi joined mostly for the thrill of fighting.
“ We tend to dislike the phrase ‘ Live Action Role Play’ (aka LARP), as we feel that it doesn’t accurately describe what we do,” he explained in an email.
According to Hayashi, role playing phrases like “magic”, “rank” or “class” are not used as Dagorhir focuses more on athletic prowess and battlefield action than characterization.
Still, many are drawn to the Tolkien-esque elements of the games such as dressing up as orcs–– mythical creatures that served as evil soldiers or henchmen in The Lord of the Rings.
“ I wanted to party with the elves! ” declared Dan “Lobo” Kilian, who revealed that the fantasy aspect led him into Dagorhir.
Wearing an intricate leather breastplate, Kilian said the armor protects him during battles and heightens the “realism of the sport.”
“When you’re fighting at some of these major events with over 50 people and when you’re in the fray––It’s exhilarating,” he beamed.
Getting into Dagorhir
To join the battle games, new members are encouraged to sign a waiver, build a weapon and create a fighting identity–– a pre-gunpowder character with fantasy attributes like dwarves and hobbits or a historical bent such as Greek soldiers and samurai warriors.
After his first practice, Jim Collins, 26, had sat around with unit leaders who, after downing a few drinks, jokingly bestowed him the moniker “Akmed”.
The name stuck but the Middle Eastern persona he now assumes was solely his idea.
“ Akmed is an Arabian Assassin that excels at hiding in plain sight,” he described.
“ He’s a man of few words and just likes to kill things on the field.”
The freedom to customize the choice of character makes the sport accessible and members are also quick to point out the low cost of entry.
“ You can make a sword for less than $10,” added Maria “Libby” McDonough, who often sews costuming for Dagorhir members out of her McKees Rocks business, Brothers Cross Trading Company.
The do-it-yourself “foamsmithing” requires a bit of handiness with cloth tape, foam and adhesives to produce the hand held weapons that range from javelins and clubs to pole arms and bow and arrows.
“ We’ll all get together to build weapons,” shared McDonough. “We had about 16 people over and eight pounds of pasta and a couple cases of pop,” she said of a recent gathering.
On the battlefield
Though the “heralds” will referee the hordes of charging soldiers at larger events, the fighters mainly follow a kind of warrior honor system.
In the most simplest terms, a hit with a sword or club to the arm or leg means a loss of limbs, but a hit to the torso equals a swift death.
Unless, of course, the fighter wears armor which provides a one hit buffer.
“ I tend to also add the rule ‘ No hitting the head’ as it is one of our most important rules,” commented Hayashi. “ Whenever we debate a rule… it is evaluated on Safety, Playability and Realism, in that order.”
Aside from a few sprained ankles and busted knees, injuries are generally minor.
“Getting mangled and actually getting your armed chopped off just doesn’t seem as cool of an idea,” confessed Profota, who used to fight with real swords.
In Pittsburgh, fighters can attend regular practices at local parks or with members out in Cheswick, Greensburg, Grove City, and Erie.
“Up here the first big event will happen in the spring at Pioneer Park,” said McDonough.
Most often, events involve a rented venue such as a campground with upwards of 1500 soldiers standing strong and ready to battle it out.
“The largest one, Ragnarok, a week long event in the early part of the summer, takes place in New Castle, PA,” added Hayashi.
Getting the full experience means donning the Middle Ages styled tunics, corsets, kilts, and leggings while jeans, sneakers or anything “visibly modern” is discouraged.
At the end of an arduous battle, the warriors will naturally partake in feasting and merriment.
“After the sun goes down at events people will get into characters, like goblins and orcs,” said McDonough.
Honor and pride
As the practice at Schenley Park wore on, spectators routinely stopped and observed the swordsmanship, and some bystanders clicked a few photographs of the otherworldly soldiers.
“It’s a fun thing to watch,” said Huston. “Sometime we’ll amp it up a little higher to give a little more entertainment.”
Weaving around the battlefield with a spear in hand, in particular, offers a livelier alternative to running on the treadmill or heading to the gym.
“There’s nothing more fun than beating up your friends with a padded piece of PVC ! ”, laughed McDonough.
Most certainly, comrades who band together during times of war build physical endurance, inner courage and lasting bonds.
“I’m really not a people person and I was headed down a bad way,” shared Profota.
“ But here there’s rules and regulations––kinda like being in the military…If you do things outside of Dag, it reflects badly on the group.”
What began with a few college kids now brings together men and women, high school students, professionals, non “people persons”––really anyone willing to take a stab at an enemy or wield a weapon in combat.
“I’m incredibly proud of Angaron,” wrote founder Torrefranca. “All I wanted to do was get the ball rolling on a way to get people to come out to dress funny and fight…I just didn’t expect it to do what it did.”