Sci-fi fans find game a physical, fun release

Darkon demonstration given as part of weekend's convention activities

April 24, 2000|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Dressed in black and carrying a battle-ax, Phillip Morris spent yesterday recruiting soldiers for an underground army of hand-to- hand combatants.

In a Baltimore hotel room, Morris, 38, cast off his weekday persona as a top manager at software giant Sun Microsystems and became a dark elf, a long-haired warrior in the service of the wicked goddess Lloth.

Breathing hard and dripping with sweat, the elf warrior viciously swung his foam-padded weapon below the shield of Sir Bendore Dubh, a knight of Paledor.

The knight's legs tangled in the weapon and Sir Bendore -- also known as computer systems analyst John Machate of Columbia -- went crashing to the carpeted ground.

The mock-combat merited barely more than a glance from passers-by in the lobby of Omni Inner Harbor Hotel, where about 1,000 science fiction fans gathered for Balticon 34, a statewide science fiction convention held annually.

In a crowd of long-haired, sword-wearing men and black-begauzed women with stuffed dragons on their shoulders, the two warriors' garb was not that unusual.

Neither was their pastime: a live-action combat-and-fantasy game called Darkon.

Many a doctoral thesis has been written about the science fiction subculture. But Morris and Machate insist that games like Darkon are no mystery. They're team sports for people who don't like to play by ordinary rules.

"This is just a hobby that some people can't kick," said Machate, 30.

The game's ancestry can be traced to the 1980s fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons. According to Machate, "some kids 16 and 17 years old were bored and hitting each other with sticks," and came up with the idea for a Dungeons and Dragons spinoff. The game morphed at least twice more before Darkon, a local version, was invented about 15 years ago.

These days, about 200 players gather once every two weeks somewhere between their homes in Northern Virginia, Washington, Baltimore, Annapolis and the Eastern Shore. Wearing costumes loosely based on medieval garb and carrying foam-padded maces, shields and battle-axes, they meet in public parks or in some friendly landowner's woods and fields for an afternoon's worth of "combat." Next up: a mock battle May 7 in Arden Park, near Millersville in Anne Arundel County.

Combatants describe the encounters as something like a cross between a soccer game and a battle scene in "Braveheart" -- a fairly intense fight-and-flee workout, with frequent breaks for fantasy and folderol.

"We have a lot of programmers, a lot of people who have more money than they know what to do with," Machate said. "Doing this is a way of blowing money" -- and of blowing off steam after a rough work week in the high-pressure, high-tech economy.

"It's stress relief," said Morris, of Ashburton, Va., who at 38 is one of the grand old men of Darkon. "I'm a global manager of a big company, and for me this break is very important. You're getting completely outside of your real life."

Darkon players ally themselves with one of 20 fantasy countries, each with a ruler, priests, language and symbols.

Morris, whose real-life title is "global manager for enterprise resource planning," recasts himself on the weekend as a long-legged elf-warrior for the underground kingdom of Ched Nasad. Dressed in a loose-fitting black jerkin and black fringed boots, a silvery, rune-etched medallion on a heavy chain draped around his neck, he bears a slight resemblance to the sheriff of Nottingham as portrayed by "Robin Hood" movie villain Alan Rickman.

Machate, by contrast, goes for a Prince Valiant style -- a tidy pageboy and a bright tunic decked with a yellow and purple eagle -- but he, too, has cast himself as a villain.

"My character's persona is a thief," Machate said "It's more fun to be a scum living on the street and being naughty."

The weekend indulgence in fantasy changes people's personalities, Morris said. "A lot of people go through life in a shell, and this really brings them out of their shells and opens up their imaginations."

Only a few dozen conventioneers took part in Darkon demonstrations, and Morris and Machate said they expect few new recruits. They said the game rarely appeals to fantasy fans of the sort who dominated the weekend convention -- girls in Goth garb and men in combat fatigues who sprawled on the hotel's couches reading sci-fi magazines or browsed among displays of pentagrams, griffins and swords.

"It's too physical for most of the people here," said Morris. "It's really more of a sport than anything else."

But those who make it to one of the weekend gatherings stand a good chance of becoming hard-core aficionados. Said Machate, "Adrenalin is a very addictive thing."

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