A half-elf assassin, a pirate who lost his ship, Conan the Barbarian guy, narcissistic healer, reptile person named Waldo, and many other fantastical beings joust in a Clovis park every Saturday.
They were my comrades earlier this month as we fought (or in my case, frolicked) in a magical land called Terras that exists – if your imagination is big enough – in Sierra Bicentennial Park.
Terras Wars members gather for something called live-action role playing, or larping. Outfitted with foam weapons and dressed in costumes, they go on epic quests and do battle while pretending to be whoever they want to be. The group has around 50 registered members.
They say larping is a “storytelling experience.” Some choose not to fight. Their world comes with elaborate lore and detailed combat rules, decided by a senate and council that meet regularly.
I learned of these imaginative people last year after spotting a middle-aged man engaged in hand-to-hand combat near a Clovis playground while holding a large scorpion shield. Half a year later, the intrigue that spectacle produced endures.
So I approach the larpers again Jan. 16 – this time, ready to be trained in the ways of the warrior.
Before our meeting, I assure my mom that I’ll still be able to make a Fresno Philharmonic orchestra concert.
“I should only be fighting for a couple of hours.”
“Aw,” she says, grinning. “My peace child is going to fight. That’s awesome.”
Rainbow Warrior enters Aushire
And so the peace child picks up a sword – made of foam.
I’m still required to sign a waiver that mentions, twice, in bold font, that death by foam weapon is possible.
I’ve named myself the Rainbow Warrior. Wearing a bright and shaggy rainbow vest, lime green Tyrannosaurus rex T-shirt, and purple headband across my forehead, I look something like a Care Bear that strayed into a Lord of the Rings battle, but the people of Terras are welcoming and kind. They provide two trainers who, fortunately, also have magical healing powers, which comes in handy when I get killed six times.
A lot of what happens in Terras occurs in a town called Aushire. It’s a quaint and peaceful-looking coastal town, says Terras Wars founder and emperor Joaquin Romero, “and then you go inside and it’s pretty much like stepping into a cutthroat downtown ghetto.”
A barbarian nearby chimes in: “Think of the OK Corral in Tombstone – and everybody is a cowboy.”
But it’s not all gunslinging out here in the Wild Wild West. Terras Wars members also go on quests that require no fighting, like negotiating land purchases or trying to collect wood from The Ghost Woods where there are annoying talking bushes.
I ask a group to share some favorites and they start calling out missions in excited bursts.
“The centaur. The werewolf fight.”
“The first one.”
“No no, the bandits!”
“Which bandits!? There are a lot of bandits.”
“The cat bandits!”
Find something that entertains you and just do it.
Steve Choi, aka Marco the pirate who lost his ship
All this started five years ago, when Romero founded Terras Wars with his girlfriend, Kristen Decker, and a couple of others no longer involved. Romero and Decker assumed the role of emperor and empress of the land.
The 26-year-old says there’s at least one other similar club in the area. He broke away from a previous group.
“I wanted it to be friendlier,” he says, “less competitive with each other, and everyone working together.”
In his Earth life, he recently quit working as a bouncer after a guy tried to knife him outside a bar. He says being a bouncer is “not fun.”
His goal for Terras Wars is to create a “fun place for people to play make-believe without feeling like they are too old for it.” He and the empress recruit at several events each year that promote things such as anime and comics.
You are never too old to have fun. You are never too old to use your imagination.
Terras Wars’ founder and emperor Joaquin Romero
The emperor shows me an arsenal of homemade and purchased foam weapons for hand-to-hand combat. There are no fake guns. Some swords have exotic names, like the Japanese katana and a 90-inch zweihander. The emperor holds a giant ax while dressed in an intimidating black trench coat, worn leather hat, and studded greaves that protect his shins, although it’s an optional costume day and more of a practice, like it is every other Saturday.
“It’s like a medieval fantasy,” he says of Terras, “but then you throw in golems, you throw in machines, steampunk … ”
“What is steampunk?”
A “scum overlord” sitting nearby answers for him: “Victorian era with industrial revolution technology.”
“I created a world with lots of different themes,” the emperor says, “so people could choose characters that fit their personal style.”
Most Terras Wars members have complex histories and personalities for their characters who grow and change, perhaps none more drastically than Elric the Guardian, brought to life by 21-year-old Quanah Martinez.
“He was a holy man,” he explains while dressed in a suit of armor. “He started a guild that worshiped the sun and got a few followers. The town saw it as a cult. Then we started helping out the town – helping people, saving people, doing good things – and they stopped seeing us as a cult and more of a helpful thing in the town. Over the past two and a half years a lot of stuff has happened, and now I am a vampire.”
He’s also half angel. His pregnant wife is half demon. But their baby will just be a regular human, they say, because the whole angel-demon thing cancels itself out.
Role playing affects people in different ways.
Ryan Noles, 23, was inspired by the game to become a registered EMT. Aspirations of becoming a flight paramedic surfaced after playing roles such as healer, cleric and oracle.
It’s like the way people play video games or watch movies.
Ryan Noles, aka ‘scum overlord’ Emmaline
Larping helps Ray Chamberlain, 20, vent frustrations from working at a call center, where he has to talk with many cranky, upset people. In Terras, he plays Orin, a Conan the Barbarian-like guy on the battlefield, but more of a “younger, less-Scottish Sean Connery” otherwise.
Joshua Castle, 16, says playing a 3-foot assassin gnome named Umbran (because “umbra” is Latin for “shadow”) helps him be more social.
“I have to talk here,” he says. “I don’t like talking.”
‘Just be you’
My primary trainer is Timoré, a human capable of using magic spells to heal wounded fighters, but often for a price. He reminds me of a shepherd in his long coat and wide-brimmed hat. In his life on Earth, he’s Taylor Bodiford, an 18-year-old who recently applied for a state job in the office of a correctional facility.
I’m not taught much about fighting during my short trip to Terras, but I’m learning far greater things than how to handle a weapon by listening to my newfound friends.
“The whole point of this experience,” Timoré says, “is to be someone you are not, but at the same time, be yourself. … What I’m trying to say is, even though we all say that our characters are different from who we are or can be, there will always be a part of you in there. And all this greatness that your character can do or has the potential to do, it’s not just your character doing that. You’re doing that. And it should inspire you to find new outlets and new sources to make yourself seem great and be epic and do amazing things.”
I think sometimes you can find epiphanies in being a different character.
Taylor Bodiford, aka Timoré the mage
A reptile person with magical healing powers, played by Jared Nef, 19, says, “Just be you.”
“Sometimes people yell, ‘You guys are stupid!’ And we’re like, ‘OK, we don’t care. We’re being us right now,’ ” my reptile friend says. “We’re not afraid to be who we are.’ ”
“Even though,” I start to ask, a little hesitantly, “it’s like, technically not really you?”
“Yeahhhhh …” he responds, his tone telling me that’s not a “yes” or even “yeah.”
Later, changing into a more respectable outfit for the Fresno Philharmonic, I feel sad. The last to go is the purple headband. I want to keep wearing it across my forehead, maybe with some cool feathers hanging down one side.
But inside the concert hall, I find I’m quite happy and at home in my grown-up clothes.
While listening to Noah Bendix-Balgley perform a gorgeous violin solo, I’m asking myself which Carmen is my more natural state of being: the girl in the dinosaur T-shirt, or this violin lover in black heels?
The answer comes quick.
“Oh yeah, silly. Both.”
As we grow up, there is a real danger we’ll stop growing. That happens when we’re afraid of expressing anything outside the role we’ve told ourselves we are here to play. Don’t cling to any idea of who you think you are.
The best moral of the story? Don’t take life seriously.
Ray Chamberlain, aka Orin the barbarian
Half-elf assassin, Charlotte, played by 21-year-old Morgan Schroeder, says something similar: “Try new things and put yourself out there.”
There is enough room inside your infinite imagination to be everything you’ve ever dreamed of – and not just in your head. Let that imagination give you new wings every day.
You might find you’d like to be a magical healer or a clever gnome or even a reptile person, too.