Where Oakland County Meets Middle Earth

He looks like a character out of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, this half-man, half-feline who is standing no more than two feet from me. His silver fangs catch my eye and I keep thinking, “Is this for real?” Next to him is a blue-faced, foam sword toting “nullifidian.” Or so I’m told. He’s wearing what looks like a loose fitting linen shirt and a long, blue, silky du-rag. This circle of characters is completed with the town lord, Mhoram. He’s tall, broad shouldered, and wearing what I’m certain are Gortex snow boots.

“Nullifidians are immune to magic and hard to heal,” the blue-faced man, whose name is Craven, says. “I’m good at killing magic users.”

“I’m a cheetah beast man. A very tribal character. Very feral,” says the cheetah beast man.

This seems quite serious, which makes it all the more fascinating.

We’re in the realm of Shifted Lands, a world where orcs and ogres and goblins and magic exist. It’s a place where beast men are a common sight, where town lords set the law, where fantasy is the reality, and it’s all just six miles east of I-75, off Perryville Road in Northern Oakland County.

But let’s snap back to real life. In reality, Shifted Lands is a LARP, a Live Action Role-Play game, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s Dungeons And Dragons brought to life. It’s Lord of the Rings minus Elijah Wood. It’s cowboys and Indians for adults. And it’s being played all over the world – or, at least, wherever you can get PVC piping and foam.

We’re at the Shifted Lands monthly LARP event. Sixty-three people, including one pregnant woman, have showed up to play characters ranging from foxes to ghouls to bears to your wildest imaginative creatures. And though it takes place at a private campground in Ortonville, complete with cabins and a pass code to get through a gate, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who acknowledges that while in character.

Craven, the blue-faced man, is really Kelly Peters; he wrote the rules for Shifted Lands more then 10 years ago. The cheetah beast man is John Girard, a father who’s been playing for a decade. The town lord, Mhoram, was born Shane Brennan. He has a desk job as a networker. He came to the second-ever Shifted Lands event back in ’98 and has 621 experience points. They’re regular dudes with regular jobs and a penchant for fantasy.

“This is our break from the world. It’s like a vacation,” Brennan says, obviously out of character. “Forget the everyday issues and work problems. No one here cares about all of that. We come here to release, lose ourselves in the game. You can be your character for the weekend.  Painted sheets are just painted sheets, but here they’re a stonewall. Or you know, deep down, you’re not a dragon, but for the weekend, you can be a dragon. It’s the willing suspension of disbelief.”

Brennan calls it improvisational live theater. “It’s like a play, you create a personality with abilities and respond how that person would respond. It’s very improvisational,” he says. “And the exercise is good, too.”

Abruptly, Craven points behind me and says, “Look.” Fifty feet from us is a girl wearing black and purple with fairy wings attached to her back. “It’s a fae.” A fae, according to the town lord, is essentially a fairy – I imagine Tinkerbelle from Peter Pan – with the term coming from Celtic mythology. Apparently they are powerful. But even further behind the high schooler with the fairy wings, between a few wooden cabins and a dozen trees, I can see flashes of colorful outfits and hear some undecipherable yelling. Some type of skirmish is taking place, chock-full of foam, duct tape, and PVC piping.

But how does it work?

To get into how exactly LARP works would require more than this space would allow – the Shifted Lands rulebook, for example, has 300 pages. To boil it down, a player who shows up to an event gets points. These points go toward your experience level. As your experience increases, the more powerful or strong or smart your character becomes. This experience will also build your hit points, also known as armor. When you’re hit in battle, depending on the strength of the (foam) weapon, hit points are removed and when you get to zero, your character dies. You can be healed before this happens with “magic” and, if you do die, you can be resurrected. Permanent death is rare. That’s the kindergarten version of the rules.

There’s also a fee component. For Shifted Lands an entire weekend is 50 bucks, unless it’s your first time, in which case it’s free. This fee includes lodging and food and you have access to the large armory of costumes, weapons, face paint and fake pointed ears. If you want to play a monster, which is called a non-player character, or NPC, then the weekend is only $20.

Your level of LARP reference might stem from that “Lightning bolt” video on YouTube, viewed 1.8 million times.

Or you may have seen the 2008 movie Role Models, which depicts some serious LARPers being seriously removed from reality.  LARPers lament the movie’s release.

“It’s not as dorky as [Role Models] made it out to be,” says Brennan. “It’s not all the kids you think it would be. There are preconceived notions of the people you expect to see here but there are also people that you don’t expect to see here. We have people involved with the theater, sports people, people who work on the line at Ford. We have people who are proud and bring their families or people who still won’t tell their families where they are going on the weekend.” Closet LARPers?

The thing is, at this event and others like it, you will find a wide range of people and professions, as Brennan says. Shifted Lands, for example, does a nice job of getting a good mix of males and females, young and old.

The weekend prior, another LARP chapter called NERO had its monthly event near Romeo. These more rural spaces in Northern Oakland County lend well to the fantasy. It’s not as much fun to fight a troll in the parking lot of CVS, between Jeep Liberties and Ford Focuses.

“I’ve been playing for about a year and a half,” says a young man who introduces himself as Marcus Soot.

“Is that your real name? The name you were born with in real life?” I ask him.

“Tyler Svakis,” he says, continuing. “It’s good for you. It’s active. It’s better than sitting around watching TV. It’s better than Cheetos. And it’s not that dorky.” There’s a slight laugh from the surrounding group.

“Well, it’s kinda dorky,” the boy sitting next to Svakis, says quietly. That’s Andrew Criscuolo. He plays a character named Oren who’s a human fighter. Criscuolo studies chemistry at Oakland University and, when he isn’t battling monsters in the land of Tyrra, he’s a waiter at Ernie’s Bar and Grille in Roseville. “This is like a second family for me, it’s a great group of friends.”

Even for those who recognize that LARP isn’t the same as quarterbacking the football team in the hierarchy of cool, the beauty is that it doesn’t matter.

“Sure, we have the stereotypical nerds but there’s a great mix of people here,” says Shawn, who didn’t want to give his last name since he works for the U.S. Department of Commerce. He plays a character named Dominick and calls himself a “good guy zealot”.

“I like seeing all the people. It’s fun and physical,” pausing, “but there are obviously some people here that are not in shape. And my girlfriend does it, too. I wish she was here so I had proof that we have girlfriends.”

“Trying to convince a jock in high school to play this game is a losing argument. You’re not gonna win that fight,” says Rob Robbins, a player of Shifted Lands who goes by either Daith or Seven. “It’s about hanging out, you talk to people about hanging out. Say, ‘Give it one chance.’ Ask ten people to come, five will show up and three will love it. This is real life adventure, it’s a rush. It’s a vacation.”

There’s a component to LARPing that can be often overlooked, buried under all the window dressing of the spectacle of foam weapons and cheetah men. There’s a social aspect that clearly comes through.

Ben, who starts driver’s training next week, is in tenth grade. He’s been attending the NERO events for a while now. His brother, who’s in eighth grade, also attends.

“This is my chance to get away from the politics of school and every day life,” Ben says. “It’s a release. But this also puts me in a position to be a better person and how to act in a social situation, even if it is based in fantasy.”

He’s got a point… an experience point, that is.

Terry Parris Jr. is a 6th level journalist/wordsmith. He is also a regular contributor to Concentrate,

Metromode and Model D.
His previous article was Birmingham’s Second Story.

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All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography

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