Dressing up in armor and fighting with foam weapons might seem like child’s play, but for some Ketchikan residents, getting together to role-play is so much more. KRBD spent a rainy Saturday at Ketchikan’s Ward Lake with members of a group known as Iron Sky to learn more.
Alexander Kilgore is a barbarian. At least, for today.
“This is our second annual Highland Games of Iron Sky,” he explained. Iron Sky is a Ketchikan-based chapter of the national live action role-playing group Amtgard — a Freehold, in the parlance of the game.
Most of the time, Alexander goes by Paul Robbins Jr. When he’s not wearing deer-skin armor, a kilt with his family tartan, and streaks of black face paint, he’s a public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service and a member of Ketchikan’s school board.
But today, he’s Iron Sky’s champion — he’s in charge of safety for the live-action role-playing group. And though it’s pouring rain and the wind is whipping, today’s games are a go.
“We’re going to make sure people are somewhat comfortable here. We’ve got a fire going. We’ve got shelters. We’re going to make sure they stay inside until it’s time for them to get out and compete,” he said. “But we’re sure as hell not canceling it. If we canceled for rain in Ketchikan, we’d never get out here.”
You might have heard of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, where players create characters that go on adventures, slaying monsters, chasing ancient artifacts, and so on. The tabletop game is governed in part by lengthy manuals and rolls of 20-sided dice.
This is similar — but no game boards and no dice.
“We come together and fight medieval-style combat and battle games, and it’s a lot of fun,” Alexander said. “Our weapons are made of PVC and foam for safety, but other than that, we fight (in) medieval-style combat with armor and swords and all that.”
Everyone’s got a specialty, known as a class. As a barbarian, Alexander is an attack machine — his strikes break through armor, and even after he’s killed, he can run around for seven seconds wreaking havoc.
But before we get to today’s battle game, there are five events celebrating Scottish and Celtic culture, starting with the caber toss.
The objective is to throw a long, heavy, traditionally wooden pole in such a way that it flips end-over-end. Today’s caber is a little less traditional than you might find in the Scottish Highlands — this one made of aluminum pipe and foam and adorned with brightly-colored tape.
“What you’re going to do is get it up to your shoulder, get both hands underneath, you’re going to take three or four running steps forward,” Alexander explains to the group. “You launch it with your shoulder, and when I’m launching with that momentum, you lift straight up with your hand.”
It’s harder than it sounds. It takes a few rounds to crown a winner. But, eventually, the judges declare a winner: Alexander’s son, 15-year-old Aetos Kilgore. (He usually goes by Jameson Robbins.)
Aetos says the events help him feel in touch with his roots.
“My family is sort of two sides of the spectrum,” he said. “I’m Scottish and I’m Mexican. So I’m learning Spanish be with my mom’s side … and then I do this to feel with my Scottish side.”
Beyond the caber toss, there are some track-and-field events like the hammer toss and the shot put, each with a fantasy twist.
Other events include the healer’s race, where competitors rush to cast a healing spell. There’s also the Irish Charge, or the Dizzy Izzy — participants spin five times around a longsword and then attempt to run in a straight line and take a swing at a waiting victim.
Not a bad way to spend a Saturday, said Aetos.
“It’s all about having fun and connecting with the people around you and building large story with each other and just being with people — and also not trying to take it too seriously,” he said.
That’s something I hear from a lot of people: it’s a welcoming, friendly environment.
I find Bebs Hack aiming his Nikon at the field as folks run through the events. He tells me about his fantasy name.
“Kymera Mane, that’s what I chose to be … because it sounds like ‘cameraman,'” he said. “A chimera is actually a mythical creature — it’s multiple creatures spliced together into one — so I thought that was a pretty cool name.”
Kymera says it’s great for anyone looking to combine their interest in D&D with a little arts and crafts.
“I think a very important part about LARPing is it’s a fun way of exhausting yourself — finding an outlet, you know, getting all that rambunctious energy out of you,” he said. “We go out here and just smack each other with a pool noodles. It’s so cool.”
After all five events, the scores are tallied, and there’s a winner: Lord Gannon Silvermane, a.k.a. Kory Pickard, is awarded a ceremonial sash of purple plaid and a brooch that endows the wearer with an opportunity to cast a tracking spell. The crowd congratulates him with a rousing “Huzzah!”
As it happens, Lord Gannon is also the group’s sheriff, the monarch of Iron Sky. It’s good to be king.
It’s a group with members of all ages, from toddlers to adults, all united by one idea: You can be anything you want to be.
Carly Hurst is somewhat new to the group — today is her first day going by her fantasy name, Kyra. She’s an archer, carrying a roughly five-foot tall longbow and a quiver full of foam-tipped arrows.
“I grew up doing archery. I was in eighth grade cosplaying (Hunger Games protagonist) Katniss Everdeen, and so I just eat up anything archery,” she said. “There’s not a range here, so I haven’t really gotten to shooting because getting a target up here — a lot of places won’t even ship them. So hearing about this, I was like, Well, moving target? For free? Let’s go!”
Then, it’s time for the highlight of today’s gathering: the battle royale. Members pair off into two-person teams, pick up their chosen weapons, and start wailing on one another.
“My leg!” one fighter yells after a blow to the thigh.
It can look a little silly, swinging foam swords and feigning grave injuries. But Kyra says, in a way, it’s therapeutic.
“I think it’s easy for people to maybe see it as, like, juvenile, perhaps, (but) for me, nothing has brought me to the present more than doing this,” she said. “You’re running around, you’re focusing, but there’s still that element of play, which is just so big for me.”
“Having a moment in your week where you can really let your guard down and just join people who are going to support you through that, the whole way through, it’s just — it brings a lot of comfort to my life, and I love the idea of sharing that with anybody,” she said.