Cowboys and wizards head Into the Breach

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First Posted: 9/16/2013

Comic books and video games are now, more than ever, socially acceptable and mainstream, so why not live-action role-playing?

That’s the question that Into the Breach Productions, a nonprofit founded in 2009 in NEPA that creates LARPs, is asking, particularly since what they do is quite different from the average game.

“Traditional LARPs are set in the medieval fantasy kind of a thing – ‘Lord of the Rings,’ ‘World of Warcraft,’ that kind of setting. You have your armor, swords, bows, and dwarves… With the two games we have now, it’s very different. To my knowledge, I don’t know where the next Western LARP is. I don’t know where someone can go play cowboys for the weekend… I don’t if you can play it anywhere else in Pennsylvania,” writer Matt Navin, 28, of Edwardsville, explained.

“That’s a big thing for us, always trying to do something a little bit different, a little bit outside of what you see. It helps you distinguish yourself from the established games in the area.”

Into the Breach has been running two games since March – Grimdark West, a Western fantasy set in 1875 Dakota Territory, and Honors Arcana, set in modern times at Poor Richard’s Academy of Magical Arts, a finishing school for magicians in training. Both are run on weekends in Hickory Run State Park in White Haven, with Grimdark now finished for the year and Honors ending at the end of September.

“We’re doing very well this year. Our entire population has grown. Even newer players have entered our player base. A good aspect of the Western game is that we’ve introduced a new community, a new genre of LARPing to the area. And for Honors, we have a much younger crowd where parents, if they play, can bring their kids to play with them, and that’s worked out well for us. We actually had less trouble with 12-year-olds than we had with the 30-year-olds,” cracked Chris Ormando, a 35-year-old Edwardsville resident and head director of Into the Breach.

Looking to raise awareness about their games as well as LARPing in general, he said his other favorite title is “nerd wrangler,” though he has plenty of help with that from his team.

“You are physically being a character, dressing up in a costume, which really helps with your emergence. It’s not like you’re sitting at a table playing (Dungeons & Dragons) where you’re rolling dice. You’re still role-playing, you’re still involved in it, but you’re still in your t-shirt eating Cheetos at a kitchen table at your friend’s house, where with this you’re in the woods and you’re running around,” designer and art director Amy Zurko, 24, of Nanticoke, explained.

“You’ve got the weight of the armor on you. You’re carrying a big old piece of plywood as a shield for a while. You’ve been fighting for a couple minutes, so you’re feeling that fatigue. It puts you there,” Navin added.

“You feel actually scared sometimes. You feel that dread when you’re really scared because it’s dark out and there’s people trying to kill you and you have just a dinky little sword and it’s just so exciting,” Zurko continued.

“We want our players to drive the story. It’s their story. It’s not our story.”

Writer Ralph Pierce, 30, of Ashley, summed up the draw of LARPing by comparing it to other forms of entertainment.

“It’s very much like when you go to see a movie. Depending on the genre of movie you’re going to see, you’re going there to experience a certain type of emotional connection, whether it’s a comedy or horror, whatever. LARPing can give you that in a way that sitting in a theater doesn’t always give you,” he began.

“It’s closer to an actual live stage performance, when you’re sitting at the Kirby (Center) or at Little Theatre (of Wilkes-Barre) and you see the actors. There’s more of a connection there, but now you’re one of those characters. One of the interesting things about it is not only are you one of the characters, but it’s not just a script. Your actions, how you react to it, makes other people react differently.

“Whenever anybody reads a good novel, sometimes they’ve thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be really cool if it went this way?’ Well, it does because you acted and it changes it; it changes the whole narrative up. That’s actually one of the things that we pride ourselves on. As our players react, as they move, as they kind of shake things up, we react to them. We give them a living role, a living narrative.”

Those roles vary depending on the game, and the group eagerly explains the details of both, starting with Grimdark West.

“Grimdark West happens in 1875, one year before Little Bighorn. Little Bighorn happens in 1876 and you cannot change that. We’re just going to change what happens. A full weekend runs from Friday night until Sunday about noon, give or take, and if you try to plan that 40 hours of the weekend minute-by-minute, things are going to go off the rails,” Navin noted.

“It’s not really steampunk, either. It’s Western. It’s like dark Western, weird West. There are undead,” Ormando clarified, comparing it to the video game “Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare” with added magical elements.

“I know that there’s a good number of people that go to the game because they like that style of cast-iron campfire cooking and playing a game set like that,” Navin pointed out. “I think it does a good job of bridging that gap between a game and the folks that like to go out and do Civil War reenactment… It’s very accessible for people, and I think a lot of people like to play it because you’re a pioneer in the West for a weekend.”

Honors Arcana, however, is lighter and much more “whimsical.”

“The game currently is set in a remote forest in Nova Scotia. The players kind of teleport there on the weekend to do their thing, and one of the things they were asked to do by the elves who live in secret in Nova Scotia is to stop this logging company from harvesting their forest. But we gave the players no indication about how to do this. There was no direction. Just figure out a way to stop them,” Navin described.

“We’ve gotten feedback from players that it was some of the more rewarding LARPing they’d ever done because they really had to think on their feet… That’s what we try to do with all of our games, is give them the dilemma, give them the situation they’re facing, but not really guide them through how to solve it – leave it totally open-ended.”

The writers have learned to “expect the curveball” from players, but rather than stress about what will be thrown at them next, they embrace this ongoing challenge, stretching the limits of their creativity.

“LARPing, as a whole, is a way to experience life. It’s experiencing different aspects of life that you can’t normally experience,” Piece said.

“That’s the big thing about LARP. It’s ‘Conan the Barbarian,’ it’s ‘Star Wars.’ Whenever you put yourself in or empathize with the main character, you can put yourself in a LARP and you can play from that point. Now the story revolves around you because you actually have an active role in it. Whatever you do impacts it,” Ormando enthused.

And despite what many standing on the outside looking in might say, it’s a very social activity.

“It’s kind of funny – a lot of people look at it and go, ‘Well, LARPers are all anti-social.’ There’s actually more people at a LARP than there is at your kitchen table,” Pierce said.

“People I have met who have role-played their entire lives explain, ‘Hey, look, I go to a nine-to-five job. During the week, everything kind of seems blasé, but when I game, or even go hiking or shooting or to a reenactment, whatever my hobby is, it gives me that refreshing taste,’ and that’s what LARP does. LARP, for many people, is that extra step, that extra input, that extra bit of creativity that kind of feeds that need that some people have and lets them escape. It’s what makes the hobby great.”

So, in other words, they’re nerds, they’re proud, and they’re recruiting. For details on joining Into the Breach games, visit or for Grimdark West and for Honors Arcana. Ormando can be reached at 570.406.3763.

“I went to one event, I got stuck in the mud and died, and I had the best time of my life, and nine years later, I am running LARPs and wrangling the nerds and still getting lost in mud,” Zurko emphasized with a laugh.

“If you think you’ll like it, you will.”