Middle-earth brought to Oak Grove

Jimmy Winkelman, right, 20, personifies a Russian fighter named Radka. Winkelman is a freelance graphic designer and has been playing Dagorhir for more than a year. (Dave Gershgorn/ The Penn)

A powdery snow blanketed the nearly empty Oak Grove Sunday as students left shuffled footprints to get either to the library or another warm shelter.

However, as 2 p.m. approached, the corner of the Oak Grove in front of Waller Hall became a medieval-themed battlefield as about 10 men and women gathered wearing shields, heavy boots and constructed swords, braving the cold weather and curious glances from bystanders.

While the Oak Grove is known to be an arena for all types of sports, Sunday afternoons have been the customary practice area for Dagorhir, a combative sport based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings of Middle-earth and medieval fantasy. “Dagorhir” is loosely translated to “battle lords” in Tolkien’s Elvish and may commonly be referred to and mistaken for Live Action Role-Playing games, or LARP.

“A lot of other games that are LARPs are more concerned with the role-playing aspect,” said Chris Royce, 32, who has played for 10 years now. “There are no magic spells, there’s nothing like that – it’s all based around the combat.”

The realm, or local chapter, that Royce is a part of that meets at the Oak Grove is called Maethodoron, which is translated to “fighters of the Oak.”

“[LARP] is pretty much exactly that – carrying out the role of a character in a real setting,” said Margaret Gagel (sophomore, business management), who is the secretary of the Maethodoron realm and has been playing since July 2013. “LARPers are actors of a sort.”

Royce said that while Dagorhir focuses on purely combat, some players still characterize themselves for the game; however, only creating a name is required.

“You try to pick a character that is either purely historical or some type of medieval fantasy character,” Royce said. “As long as you can reasonably look like you’ve stepped out of a medieval writing, you can use it.”

Royce’s character is Satou Kenshin, who is half-Viking and half-Japanese.

“My friends have described me in past times as a samurai with Viking tendencies,” Royce said.

Gagel personifies a historical Biblical character named Rizpah.

“She was a concubine or a queen,” Gagel said. “When two of her children were murdered in an act of political violence, she stayed, guarded their bodies and would not let things eat the bodies until they were buried with honor.”

Indiana University of Pennsylvania college technology manager Tim Estep, 45, of Johnstown, has been playing for three years and personifies an old Viking named Moldred Darkwill.

“For me it’s a way to make friends and also spend time with my kids,” Estep said.

Estep said he plays with his daughter along with his IUP-student son, Harris Allen Estep (sophomore, pre-physical therapy).

“It’s a way for me to be interactive with their lives as well as make friends and have fun,” Tim Estep said.

Estep said the hardest part of Dagorhir is acquiring a look and personification.

Bill Thomas (sophomore, communications) has been playing since September 2013 and personifies the character Danneth.

“My character was basically an orphan to start off,” Thomas said. “He began on the streets of one of the bigger cities and grew up learning how to be a thief.”

Thomas said his character is an independent thinker and wouldn’t swear himself to a crown.

Many players in the Maethodoron realm put together their personification’s look from stores like Goodwill and Wal-Mart.

“I adapted most of it,” Thomas said.

Thomas said he got his long, leather jacket piece from Goodwill, scrubs from Wal-Mart, and everything else from various costume shops.

“A lot of it you can get if you’re just creative enough,” Royce said. “Most people don’t make everything in their costume.”

Time and effort spent getting geared up for practice depends on the season and event.

“Colder weather means more layers, more armor and different garb than warmer weather,” Gagel said. “If it’s just a practice, it is common for people to show up in athletic clothing to better facilitate fighting.”

As for the weapons, most of the weapons are handmade in the Maethodoron realm.

“It takes about an hour to make a sword, Gagel said. “It’s a couple days to make a shield because you have to let the glue dry.”

Weapon-making materials consist of wood, foam, tape, etc.

For safety during the game, there are regulations for the weapons.

“As much as we want to re-enact stuff, we also want to not die,” Gagel said.

Royce said weapon constrictions are now more weight-based. A weapon test consists of seeing if the tip can pass through a 2-inch hole. However, everything has to pass a safety test.

“[It’s] what we like to call the ‘hit test,’” Royce said. “Because with our weapons, it’s usually not a slight failure – it’s a catastrophic failure.”

Royce said sometimes the blade will fall off in the middle of practice or even an event. The Maethodoron realm travels to different inner-realm events.

“Two of the bigger events on this side of the state occur in Somerset twice a year, and the biggest Dagorhir event of the year actually takes place in Slippery Rock,” Royce said.

Ragnarok is the name of the Slippery Rock event.

Royce said nobody takes actual points at these events; it’s solely based on the honor system. As far as fighting rules go, Gagel said there are four basic ways to hit your opponent.

“You lose two limbs, you’re dead and if you get hit in the gut, you’re automatically dead,” Gagel said.

Thomas said the fighting part is more difficult than it looks.

“A couple of people make it look easy,” Thomas said. “It’s genuinely difficult, but at the same time, if you practice enough, you will get better and better.”

“If you land a dirty shot on an opponent, it is on your honor to react accordingly,” Gagel said.

Pete Siranni contributed reporting to this story.