Ready, set, play!

Here’s a new thing people around Wausau are doing for fun. Dressing up and battling, and the group includes everyone from carpenters, to business owners, to military veterans.


On a cold night on a hillside battlefield, I found myself facing off against a sword-wielding wizard. I held a shield in one hand and a sword in the other; my opponent was armed similarly. The sounds of battle, shouts preceding attacks, echoed through the cool late-spring air as the sun set.

I didn’t last long.

This was the Wausau practice of the Last Hope live action role playing group, commonly called LARP. I’d come primarily to conduct interviews and take some photos of the group members, many dressed in full costume. Sylvan Hill Park seems to be the perfect fantasy setting for the group, meeting up there for the last three months to work on battle techniques and to run through scenarios.

Practices lead up to events, which are generally multi-day affairs in which players dress up in full gear, stay in character and act out scenarios. There really isn’t any scripting, explains Jeff Mork, organizer of the Wausau group. Players are given scenarios and act out their role, taking on evil Mordoks or Undead, or whoever else decides to attack them.

The main group of Last Hope is based in Baraboo, and Mork and a handful of other central Wisconsin residents used to make the trip down to the weekly practices. Now, with a Wausau “practice” a dozen people regularly attend practices at Sylvan Hill Park each Tuesday night. Most are dressed as some kind of character and come from a surprisingly diverse background. The group includes several military veterans and a local business owner.

I’d encountered Last Hope at the annual Evercon gaming convention held this year in Kronenwetter. As I waited for a name badge to be printed, I was startled to see what I thought was someone in a very elaborate Orc costume. As the convention continued, more and more of these creatures appeared, as well as others in medieval themed apparel. They were entertaining the crowds as they strolled through, and all seemed to be coming from a particular room at the convention. I had to go see for myself.

That was January, and Mork at the time was planning the Wausau-based group for Last Hope players. The Wausau practice is essentially an extension of that group, Mork explains.

One finds out quickly there aren’t a lot of spectators at Last Hope. If you show up, you play, even if you’re a mom dropping off her kids. There are many different kinds of roles in the game, many that don’t involve combat, including innkeepers, blacksmiths and town folk— plenty of options that are easy to jump into. Some events don’t involve battle at all. One event is entirely political, Mork says, with no swordplay whatsoever.

But that wasn’t their plan for me. After a tutorial including several pages of rules from Paul Peterson, I was handed a sword and a shield, and given my first opponent, Mork himself.

It turns out, it’s really fun to run around and hit people with swords. Who knew? They did.

What is live action role playing?


From left, Kelly Pelot and Anna Belongia in full battle mode. Pelot joined the group after doing a video project on them, and became quickly hooked on part sport, part geek-out sessions.

Imagine the world of Dungeons & Dragons, but played in real life, and you get somewhat close. Live action role playing, or LARP, as it’s often referred to, combines acting, fitness, martial arts, skill building, gaming and fantasy all into one package.

Last Hope’s rule set for role playing specifically is low fantasy, medium contact and high immersion. The practices, after all, are primarily designed for players to learn combat rules, which seem a bit complicated at first but are much simpler than a tabletop game.

The real deal is in the events themselves — one- to three-day events in remote areas where players take on the role of their character. It’s called high immersion because players are expected to maintain character, eschew any device not related to the game world (you won’t see a knight with a pair of Nikes texting on his iPhone). Players stay in character the entire weekend as long as the game is in session, and some even camp out in character. Many camp outside the game’s boundaries or stay in hotels, where you can go back to real life for awhile.

There aren’t any dragons to be found in Last Hope, primarily because the world of Last Hope is meant to be as realistic as possible for a fantasy. Also, you can’t accurately represent a dragon.

Speaking of realism, you really do get hit with weapons. Yes, they are covered in foam, but the hardcore inside give them some heft and sturdiness. Players are expected to hit with medium contact. From experience I can say it doesn’t feel pleasant but it’s nothing you wouldn’t experience in a martial arts class.

Archery is even allowed, and a couple of players at Sylvan Hill had bows. They use real bows, by the way, limited to a 35-pound draw weight with arrow tips cushioned with stuffed sock-like bulb on the end. I saw someone get shot with one of these from about 30 yards, hitting him in the stomach. He laughed, but also looked a little pained.

Starting with a convention


Jeff Mork, left, takes a break with Tom Belongia, who joined the group this year after meeting them at the annual Evercon gaming convention.

It didn’t take long for Tom Belongia, 41, of Wausau, to get hooked on the Last Hope game. Belongia is the owner of Biggby Coffee, and had a booth at Evercon, right next to Last Hope’s area. He was fascinated.

That was January, and he joined his first event that same month, playing the role of a Mordok, those big, lumbering monsters painted black that Evercon attendees saw growling around the convention grounds. His wife, Anna, 35, quickly joined in the fun in February.

The Belongias helped Mork get the Wausau practice off the ground and found some of its first members—Belongia also holds game nights at his Biggby Coffee stores.

The Belongias had experimented with LARP in the past, but the Last Hope group was pretty much everything they were looking for in this type of experience. There’s an element of fantasy and playing out a role; there’s battling with realistic looking weapons and the thrill of suddenly being attacked; there’s connecting with a fun group of people.

And like theater at its best, people find it utterly delightful.

It’s also family friendly, Anna Belongia says, which helps them all enjoy the experience together in various ways. During the Sylvan Hill practice I attended, their 9- and 6-year-old daughters were playing in the woods dressed in Last Hope world-appropriate tunics, pants and boots. Tom was dressed something like a Viking warrior, while Anna Belongia was dressed all in black like an archer—think a darker version of Katniss from The Hunger Games. Nearly everyone is dressed similarly, which Mork says is encouraged at practices.

“It’s great for their imagination building,” Anna Belongia says. “You take a 6-year-old and ask them ‘What is your favorite part of this movie? Do you want to be that, then?’”

The Belongias assured me they’re having every bit as much fun as their children, if not more. Role playing is part escapism, part thrill and a whole lot of exercise.

Tom Belongia says he once wore about 60-pounds of armor, leaving him thoroughly exhausted. Even without it, practices are a workout, and after each round of battle everyone is panting and heaving. I was, too, shortly after donning a shield and sword and entering the melee.

“You might feel a little silly the first time you do it,” Anna Belongia says. “I feel like, this is what I played at 8 years old. I didn’t know I could do this at 35. This is awesome!”

Safety first

Paul Peterson, 34, of Wausau, has been involved in the LARP group for about four years, sometimes making the trek to the Baraboo practice. He’d been in a more fighting-based roleplaying group before that.

Last Hope, with its full immersion experience, had everything he was looking for. Now he’s considered the weapons trainer amongst the Wausau group, teaching newcomers the rules, and all the safety protocols.

Every attempt is made to keep battle scenarios realistic, but safety trumps all. If someone is backing up toward a cluster of brambles, for example, the opposing player will yell out “caution!” They might yell “stop” if someone is injured.

Peterson, following our interview, showed me some of the techniques involved. To count, a sword swing must start from past the body—how you’d actually have to strike an enemy to cause real damage. You can swing once every second. One hit equals one point of damage. If you get hit in a limb, that limb is disabled (at one point I took a shot to the leg and had to limp around the field dragging the “injured” appendage behind me). There’s absolutely no swinging at someone’s head.

The practices, Peterson explains, are so people can learn the combat enough so they don’t have to think about it when they’re in character and playing an event. They can focus on the fun instead.

The thrill of battle


Participants in the local live action role playing group Last Hope practice monthly at Sylvan Hill Park in Wausau.

Everyone at Tuesday’s practice talked about the thrill of battle, which might raise an eyebrow for someone who hasn’t tried it. After all, they’re just foam weapons right?

The weapons are specially made to look realistic, but with a soft exterior and a solid core. They won’t cause serious injuries, but might leave bruises.

Tom Belongia said he experienced that thrill the first time he faced a Mordok charging at him from across the field. Anyone who saw the very realistic Mordoks at Evercon will have some sense of how scary they look. And anyone who has ever jumped at a scary part in a movie or while playing an eerie video game knows even fictional experiences can evoke real emotions and thrill.

There’s a certain thrill and lease that Last Hope brings to participants, and that has helped attract a number of veterans, Mork says. Including himself. It also includes the group’s marketing person, Kelly Pelot, who served 10 years in the Army National Guard.

Mork is now retired from the U.S. Air Force and found Last Hope shortly after he left the service. He says about 15% to 20% of Last Hope’s players are veterans.

“One of the things we found with the military, is when a lot of us come out, we have things we’re working through,” Mork says. “This is a place where it’s safe to work through those things. You know the people you’re with, and you can go through scenarios that can help you to deal with a lot of those things. There’s an element of escapism.”

Pelot agrees. “One thing you lose when you leave the military is the community you were apart of,” Pelot says. “I find that here. It’s nice.”

Others said it’s similar to martial arts in that there’s a certain release that helps make real life run more smoothly.

Battling is believing

Mork has a series of articles at the ready for when people ask, “You do what?” It can be tough to explain that once a month you go wandering through woods and fields dressed as a wizard, battling monsters and pretending you’re in another world.

The best way to understand is to actually try it; people are often surprised by how much fun they have, Mork says.

Pelot discovered that herself. She came to an event two years ago to do a video project on Last Hope, and decided to participate to get a sense of what she’d be filming. She now does marketing for the group and is an active member as well. “I dedicate a lot of time to this because I love it, I’m very passionate about it.”

Everyone interviewed seemed to love the multi-faceted appeal—part improv acting, part martial art, plus theater, fantasy, and a workout in the outdoors.

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